Trying to sort through the current negotiations between teachers in the Caledonia North Supervisory Union and its school boards is like trying to unsnarl a 10-pound ball of string filled with knots.

Teachers and board members are willing to talk on the street, but not on the record, instead letting three official spokespeople speak to the public on behalf of the teachers & #039; organization.

Negotiations between the Caledonia North Education Association and CNSU boards have been ongoing for more than a year. Teachers recently voted to strike Jan. 15 if an agreement is not reached by Jan. 14.

Exactly what is going on has a lot of people scratching their heads -- including the media.

Teachers claim the boards & #039; proposal is not fair because there is a great disparity between what some teachers will receive as far as raises go. For instance, there is a young teacher with a master & #039;s degree at the Burke School who just started teaching at the school last year. He will receive a total raise of $478 over a two-year period.

Another teacher at the same school has a bachelor & #039;s degree with 15 credits toward a master & #039;s but has been teaching for over 20 years. She will receive a raise of $7,674 over two years.

The union says it wants every teacher to receive the same raise -- 5 percent of the base salary of $25,000 -- each year of the three-year contract. Its proposal also calls for a step increase of $1,261 a year. This will attract new teachers to the area and retain experienced teachers, they say.

"I like the fact the union is looking out for all the teachers -- including the young ones," one teacher said.

The current salary schedule was set up years ago and has proven to be too expensive. With each year of experience teachers were to receive a step increase which amounted to a raise of $1,250 a year. Taxpayers could not afford to maintain this schedule, so teachers and boards negotiated a contract in which smaller raises were given with no step increases. Both sides agreed to this.

But the union then demanded that any new teachers hired would not be placed on the salary schedule at a higher step than an existing teacher with the same experience. So if a teacher with 15 years experience was "frozen" on step three because of the previous agreement, any newly hired teacher with 15 years experience could only be placed on step three.

The boards contend their 30-step schedule will allow this same teacher to be placed on step 15 where he or she belongs. In order to accomplish this some teachers will go from step three to 15 and therefore get a larger raise this one time.

As one board member said, it & #039;s worth taking this one-time hit to get teachers on the correct step and recognize them for their service. Obviously, "somebody is going to get a bigger piece of the pie."

A committee which set up this schedule went back 20 years to look at the history of what towns could afford in the way of step increases. Members came up with a flat rate of $600 as a figure which was affordable and sustainable.

Teachers don & #039;t like the fixed rate and are asking for an indexed schedule with 14 steps. Increases are based on percentages and, like interest in the bank, amounts grow over the years.

The boards say there is no way taxpayers can afford this type of schedule. They say they are trapped due to the economy and what & #039;s been happening over the last 20 years. And the teachers & #039; proposal does not solve the problem of teachers being placed on steps below where they should be.

What will this schedule do with a new teacher with 11 years of experience? one board member asked. This teacher cannot be placed higher than an existing teacher with the same experience based on the current agreement.

The 30-step schedule will bring teachers to where they should be on the salary schedule within two years, the boards say. At that time restrictions on step placements will become null and void.

< b > Cost To Districts < /b >

In order to accomplish the boards & #039; proposal it will cost the districts in CNSU a total of $405,396 over two years. Each school will see a different increase but the smaller schools will be hit the hardest. Miller & #039;s Run School in Unified District 37, which includes the towns of Sheffield and Wheelock, will see an annual increase of almost 8 percent. Newark will have to come up with nearly a 7 percent increase.

Lyndon will have to raise its school tax rate a bit over 5 cents for each of the two years in order to raise the $168,573 necessary to accomplish the boards & #039; plan. According to Town Clerk Lisa Barrett, 1 cent on the school tax rate raises about $16,000.

Of course, Lyndon has that $1 million surplus which school directors have said will probably be used to offset taxes. Taxpayers will ultimately decide.

The other school districts in CNSU -- Burke, East Haven, Newark, Sutton and U.D. 37 -- are not facing the same good fortune.

Another factor which some say plays a major role in all this is Act 60, but even the fact finder refused to touch this issue.

In his report, Gary Altman said both sides have produced a lot of information on Act 60 and its impact on the local communities. "Much of the information is conflicting," Altman wrote. "I do not presume to be an expert in the intricacies of Vermont & #039;s educational funding law."


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