A battle looms for Burlington teachers

October 13, 2016

Nolan Rampy reports from Vermont on a battle pitting teachers and their supporters against a school board determined to drive through the politicians' austerity agenda.

TEACHERS IN Burlington, Vermont, are preparing for a possible strike.

Earlier this month, hundreds of teachers, parents and community members mobilized for morning and afternoon pickets at schools throughout the district. The mobilization was in response to the Burlington School Board's decision to end contract negotiations with the Burlington Education Association (BEA) and instead unilaterally impose its proposals on the 400 teachers working in the district.

The terms include a 2.75 percent pay increase; significant limitations on who can access funding for ongoing education, which is a requirement for teachers; an increase in health insurance costs; and reduced funding for school social workers, even though there are currently 70 families on the waiting list for assistance.

For teachers, this falls far short of the recommendations of a third-party fact finder, which is typically the compromise position used to resolve conflicts during negotiations. With a freeze to the step-system, increased health insurance costs and reduced funding for ongoing education, the end result for the union is a net pay cut and continuation of worsening working conditions.

Teachers and community members call for negotiations in Burlington
Teachers and community members call for negotiations in Burlington (Burlington Education Association)

The board's refusal to return to the negotiating table was sharply criticized by many in the community. United Academics, the faculty union at the University of Vermont, issued a statement in solidarity with the teachers, "vigorously [objecting] to the concept of imposed contracts since it circumvents bilateral negotiations."

In a letter to the Burlington School Board Chair Mark Porter, Burlington resident Christopher Hood wrote that the school board's efforts "to disempower unions gives me the impression that this impasse is playing out exactly as you wanted: lowball the budget, claim there is no money, don't release specific budget details, reach impasse, line up support of other board members, then move ahead with the fastest imposition in Vermont history."

But the board's actions may have helped galvanize BEA members into action. Despite long work hours and a limited amount of time to coordinate the pickets, more than 300 BEA members showed up at protests throughout last week.

Teachers on the picket line talked about the repeated budget cuts, layoffs and concessions they have had to endure over the last several years. Those who managed to survive multiple rounds of layoffs have found themselves with less prep time, larger class sizes, and fewer supports. One kindergarten teacher reported ballooning class sizes made even worse by the recent cuts of para-educators who used to provide a second teacher for the classroom.

With working conditions increasingly out of step with other districts in the county, the Burlington School District runs the risk of becoming a revolving door for young teachers who get their experience in Burlington public schools, only to leave the district for a better-paying job once they have gained experience.

The move to impose contract terms has gone a long way toward dispelling any illusions that teachers had about a "partnership" with the school board to provide quality education.

As long as negotiations continued, the school board could cover its attack on teachers with the language of open dialogue and cooperation. But now, with the illusion of cooperation gone, teachers understand that if they want to win, they must fight.

THE SCHOOL Board's public relations strategy has been to present itself as the responsible party working within funding constraints imposed by the state--while painting the BEA as out of touch with reality.

One school board member, Stephanie Seguino, who voted to impose conditions on the teachers recently posted an open letter to Burlington residents. While noting that unionized teachers' incomes are more secure than workers overall, she wrote:

We have become painfully aware that budget and [local property] tax increases that have occurred over the last decade are not sustainable in the long run...I think it is prudent and in the teachers' interest that we are sensitive to this context and play the long game rather than the short one.

Seguino is perpetuating the myth that unionized teachers hurt the rest of the working class and, if they pursue their demands, risk losing school budget votes.

The reality is that school funding based on local property taxes is designed to be a way to constrain funding, and the state government has only made the problem worse. Between 2005 and 2011, for example, property taxes jumped from 60 to 68 percent of the total state education fund because the Vermont legislature cut other revenue streams to the fund.

What's more, the Democrats recently passed Act 46, legislation designed to limit school spending by penalizing school districts and taxpayers for approving school budgets that exceed arbitrary growth limits set by the state.

Pitting workers against each other by scapegoating teachers, as Sequino does, accepts the rigged system of funding schools and consigns teachers, students and the community to many more years of cuts.

SEGUINO IS right about one thing: we should be "playing the long game." But for us, this means understanding the current contract fight as only one battle in the ongoing war over public schools and our children's education.

Make no mistake, the defunding of education is going to continue and the school board isn't going to do a thing to stop it. Since the 2008 financial crisis, both Democrats and Republicans at the state and local level have shared a commitment to restoring business profitability through extending wealth inequality and minimizing revenues for the public sector.

It's not an accident that wealth inequality has gone hand in hand with cuts to basic social services. Since the 2008 financial crisis, Vermont has had one of the fastest-growing economies in the Northeast, and yet tax revenues are lower than they were before the crisis began.

Even on the local level in Burlington, we have a Democratic city government that cares far more about building marinas and mega-malls and expanding police, than providing for teachers and schools. A social justice program that fights for public education and galvanizes broad solidarity is the way to protect teachers' working conditions, which underlie the learning conditions of our children.

Where can teachers look for a long-term strategy? The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) provides a model of how to organize to meet the challenge.

In 2012, the CTU won a strike with overwhelming public support around the demand for "the schools our children deserve." The union called both for protecting teachers' jobs and working conditions, as well as redirecting tax money to fund schools and a broad set of reforms to improve students' learning conditions.

The CTU didn't get to this point overnight. The seeds of the union's transformation were planted years before the strike when a group of teachers began organizing together within the union. They educated themselves and organized around issues such as school privatization, the harms of standardized testing, racism in the schools, increasing workloads, school austerity and deteriorating facilities.

This laid the basis for a coalition of parents, students and teachers to come together, committed to resisting further cuts to public education and attacks on the union and promoting a progressive vision of schools that rejects standardized testing, growing class sizes, racism and education inequality.

This vision rests on the ability of an alliance of teachers, students, parents, other unionists and community members to organize and protest, with the aim of forcing a change in priorities on the city and state level.

Burlington has its own experience with this kind of unionism that seeks to unite workers beyond its own ranks.

In their successful strike in 2014, the Chittenden Country Transportation Authority bus drivers tapped into popular support in the same way, winning broad solidarity under the slogan "We are all on the bus together."

To stop the cuts, we need to build an alliance of teachers, students, parents, unionists and community members to force a change in priorities. This can only be achieved by linking the struggle to defend public education with the wider struggle for social justice.

We know it's possible, and that's why the Burlington teachers' fight right now is so important. Every struggle represents an opportunity to build the broader movement that we need to defend our schools.

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