Lawmakers seek to bar 'nuclear option'

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The House Education Committee heard from lawmakers who want to revive an effort to take the "nuclear option" out of teacher contract negotiations by prohibiting strikes while telling school boards they cannot impose contracts.

"It doesn't do what Wisconsin did," said Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, one of the bill's sponsors. "It preserves collective bargaining but takes collective action away from both sides."

H.98 would also create a seven-member task force to study dispute resolution in labor relations. The bill instructs the panel to evaluate Vermont's current statute, look at how other states resolve contract disputes and find ways to improve the process. The group would report back to lawmakers in November.

Wright said teacher strikes are "very divisive and very disruptive to any community that has one."

At the start of this school year, Burlington teachers voted unanimously to strike after the school board imposed a contract. Before the strike could begin, the board and teachers came to an agreement, but community relations were already affected, according to Wright.

"It was extremely divisive. School board members were under attack, the school community was at odds," Wright said, adding that Vermont should follow the lead of 37 other states that don't allow teachers to strike.

"We ban strikes, we ban impositions that lead to strikes, and we take the nuclear option out of the negotiations," he said. Once the bomb has been defused, Wright said, people can get down to business and settle contracts in a timely manner.

Darren Allen, a spokesman for the Vermont-National Education Association, said that after months of talks that went nowhere, it was the threat of a strike in Burlington that finally brought about a signed contract. "The whole point of collective bargaining is to force a settlement," he said. "Both parties have last-ditch disruptive tools meant to get both sides to the table to settle."

This isn't the first time Wright has introduced an anti-strike bill. In 2015, when he was on the Education Committee, a similar bill made it to the House floor and was narrowly defeated. But during the campaign season, Phil Scott said he would not sign legislation that would take away teachers' ability to strike.

As governor, Scott proposed a budget that would require teachers to pay 20 percent of their health care premiums and would freeze state spending at 2017 levels. That could lead to school districts firing or laying off teachers.

This is an unusual year in Vermont because nearly every school district is in negotiations because of changes to health insurance that require new contracts to begin at the start of 2018. "There are a lot of tough negotiations happening because of health care issues and property tax pressures. This is something we ought to be considering," Wright said of his bill.

For those who are thinking the system needs to change, Allen pointed to past decades of hyperinflation and recessions when contracts were still signed and schools continued running.

"One way to look at it: Almost every contract negotiation ends with a settlement. Contracts last, and it happens over and over. The system has worked well for educators and for school boards," Allen said.

Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, a sponsor of the bill, isn't so sure. She said a Joint Fiscal Office analysis revealed that salary and benefits increases add about $30 million to education spending annually. "That is 3 cents growth on the property tax rate automatically. That seems high to me in a time of declining enrollments," she said.

Browning said teachers have an important job and should be adequately paid but that total compensation costs are growing faster than residents' incomes and ability to pay higher taxes. She said strengthening the hand of school boards during bargaining may protect teachers' jobs by preventing annual attempts by Montpelier to control education spending.

In the end, Browning said taxpayers elect school board members to represent them at the table. "Teachers are not negotiating with a rapacious robber baron but with Vermont taxpayers and community members," she said.

It is up to the House Education Committee to decide the fate of the legislation.

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