High stakes in Burlington’s schools showdown

September 11, 2017

As the deadline for a possible strike approaches, Nolan Rampy looks at the backdrop to the drive to cut education funding--and explains why we should stand with teachers.

BURLINGTON, Vermont, teachers are set to strike on September 13 unless the school board comes up with a fair contract. Earlier this month, the board voted 9-to-1 to bypass contract negotiations and impose working conditions on Burlington teachers for the second consecutive year.

In the wake of this, members of the Burlington Education Association (BEA) voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if the board doesn't return to talks and agree to a contract.

In a statement to parents and community members, the union made it clear that this is a fight to improve working conditions for teachers and preserve quality education for students:

The Burlington Education Association is fighting for well-resourced schools that meet students' needs, affordable health care for teachers and all Vermonters, transparency in decision-making by the district and the professional dignity to do our work through adequate preparation time and workloads. We must recognize the impact of high-quality professionals leaving our district in high numbers, budget cuts that directly impact classroom instruction and constant changes in school leadership over the last two to three years. Are these the schools our children deserve?

Burlington teachers and their supporters on the picket line during the 2016 contract battle
Burlington teachers and their supporters on the picket line during the 2016 contract battle

This is familiar territory for the BEA. By almost all accounts, the quality of life and working conditions for teachers have been deteriorating for more than a decade, turning what should be a fulfilling and stable career into a thankless, high-stress job where teachers are overworked and underpaid.

In the past three years, more than 100 teachers have left the district in search of other jobs. Special educators at OnTop, a program run by the district for kids with serious emotional and behavioral issues, resigned en masse, citing "illogical and irresponsible" decisions by school administrators that undermined education efforts and put students and educators at risk.

The never-ending cuts have pushed teachers past their breaking point.

"We are done standing by while the board seeks to decrease the amount of time and attention we can devote to individual students," said Fran Brock, BEA president and a teacher at Burlington High School. "We are done standing by while a shrinking percentage of the district's budget goes to student instruction. And we are done standing by while this board prefers condescension over collaboration."

BURLINGTON IS just one of a number of Vermont school districts engaged in contentious contract negotiations this year. The South Burlington School Board has also imposed working conditions on teachers, and other districts may follow suit.

The unusually high number of unsettled contracts at this late date is not a coincidence. It's the result of coordinated effort by Democratic and Republican lawmakers to cut education funding across the state.

The latest phase started late in this year's legislative session, when Republican Gov. Phil Scott pushed a highly controversial proposal to shift negotiations over teachers' health care from the local collective bargaining process into a single, state-level negotiation.

Although educators have been accepting concessionary contracts for many years, legislators believe that school boards have not adequately cut costs on health care. Scott's solution to the impasse was simply to strip educators of their right to direct bargaining over health care.

Scott's governing mantra is "Make Vermont More Affordable," which in reality means cutting public-sector spending--in this case, by attacking union health care benefits--and insulating the wealthy from all demands for progressive taxation, while pretending be on the side of working-class property owners paying regressive property taxes.

Rather than take a principled stand in defense of public education, Vermont Democrats went into closed-door negotiations, unveiling a counterproposal at the start of a special budget session in June. These talks excluded press coverage or public testimony, and the Democrats' plan was announced and passed in just one day.

Although direct bargaining over health care for local teachers' unions was preserved, Democrats united around a new austerity plan that was in many ways no better for teachers or the public education system.

Under the new state budget, school districts must make cuts totaling $13 million over the next two years. With districts and teachers already struggling to settle contracts for the upcoming year, the passage of this bill only exacerbated already contentious negotiations.

In the greater Burlington area, home to the largest school districts in the state, schools must make cuts totaling $3.3 million over the next two years.

POLITICIANS AND school boards talk about the funding crisis in education as though it were a natural disaster--something outside of anyone's control that we must endure together. But there is nothing natural or inevitable about what is being done to Vermont's schools.

The state-mandated cuts in the 2018 budget are a continuation of a longstanding, bipartisan project of austerity that began under Vermont's former Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin. In 2009, lawmakers passed legislation requiring districts with high spending to vote twice on their budgets. In 2010 and 2011, they cut revenue to the Vermont's Education Fund, forcing an increase in local property taxes to make up the difference.

In the last legislative session, Shumlin and the Democrats passed a bill that pressured districts to self-impose austerity by penalizing communities that exceeded state-mandated limits on per-student spending.

This year, after Scott's proposal upended the budget negotiations and raised the possibility of a government shutdown, Democrats made it clear that they supported the cuts taken from teachers' health care. State Sen. Tim Ashe, who ran for office on a fusion ticket of the Progressive and Democratic Parties, stated, "There has never been disagreement that we should try to recapture as much of that savings as possible and return it back to the taxpayers."

Democrats were on board with using the state budget as a weapon against teachers--they just wanted to make sure that teachers' unions still had a seat at the table while it was happening.

FOR ANYONE interested in building a fight for public education, there are some important questions that we can start to answer based on 10 years of budget cuts.

First, to what extent is there actually a lack of resources for schools?

Vermont's economy generates more than enough wealth to properly fund our schools. Tax rates on the wealthy have steadily decreased both nationally and statewide over recent decades.

There is also a neoliberal project to defund and privatize public programs, including education. Nearby in Maine, Gov. Paul LePage is already trying to implement a single statewide teachers contract. We don't know to what extent this is a model for Vermont's government, but it's clear that big business and the ruling parties in Vermont have an agenda here.

Second, if the Democrats share the Republicans' austerity agenda, what is our strategy for reversing the tide?

The cuts are not going to stop on their own, and even if teachers can stave off the worst of them locally in this round, there will be more to come. Scott has made it clear that he intends to wield his power in the State House to undermine teachers' unions and cut funding. His attempt to impose state-level bargaining on teachers' health care packages may have failed this year, but he's already commissioned a team to explore the plan's feasibility for future implementation.

While the Burlington School Board has issued press releases objecting to the some of the state cuts, the board is far from unified, and it has no actual influence to stem the tide of austerity from legislators.

As a result, the role of the teachers' union--with its thousands of members with the capacity to strike, and as an organization with the interest and ability to substantially affect public policy--is key.

This isn't just about teachers. Public education is, at its core, a social justice issue. It's important to remember that the working conditions imposed on teachers are just one part of a broader austerity budget that cuts social services and education programs and other resources for Vermont's children.

Teachers' unions are under attack because they are the single biggest obstacle to remaking schools along neoliberal lines--meaning greater workloads, less pay, predatory management oversight for teachers and, of course, deteriorating school conditions in all but the elite schools.

If the state is successful at weakening the BEA, it will pave the way for more severe cuts in the future. This is why parents, students, and community members must stand in solidarity with teachers as they continue to fight to preserve their collective-bargaining rights.

Burlington has one of the most ethnically and racially diverse student populations in the state--including many students from Vermont's refugee population who speak English as a second language. Faculty and staff layoffs have affected some advanced courses that can help position students to pursue higher education. But often, the budget ax cuts the other way: social services and English as a Second Language programs have been among the programs hardest hit by the cuts.

Teachers' unions are the necessary factor for improving public education. In many cities, they have linked fighting budget cuts, promoting wealth redistribution and combatting racism as integral parts of the project to win the schools all of our children deserve, as well as the working conditions that teachers deserve.

If Burlington teachers go on strike, students, parents, unions and all working-class Vermonters will have a stake in making sure they win--and should stand in solidarity with the BEA.

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