BENNINGTON -- After an affirmative motion last month to hold teacher contract talks in public, Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union board members heard about open negotiations from their legal representation.
"I have spoken to attorneys who’ve conducted open negotiations. ... I have to say the experience is extremely limited," said Attorney Steven Stitzel, who, along with Patti Page of the law firm Stitzel, Page, & Fletcher, attended Thursday’s supervisory union meeting.
"In the end, they did not see that the result the board obtained through the negotiations was any better than what they probably would have obtained through a more traditional negotiation," Stitzel continued. "But at the same time it was probably not worse. So it was more a question of, there was some openness, more openness to the process, some added aggravation and annoyance -- primarily to board members -- but the process did work to conclusion and there were agreements."
Varying levels of ‘openness’
"Open" talks can be up for interpretation and all ground rules in the contract negotiation process must be agreed-to by both parties beforehand.
While the classic sense of public bargaining would include open sessions, alternative arrangements could allow for private sessions followed by statements or minutes outlining the issues discussed and offers and counteroffers.
The current three-year collective bargaining agreement between the SVSU and the Southwest Vermont Education Association union covers educational staff employed by member school districts through June 30, 2014.
Talks are expected to be picked up in December or January. Holding those discussions in public has been a reoccurring item brought for discussion by SVSU board member Francis Kinney, chairman of the Shaftsbury Elementary School board.
The last round of negotiations culminated in a nine-day teachers strike in 2011.
Stitzel said he had no personal experience with open contract negotiations. But he said school district attorneys who had found some drawbacks to the process, chiefly stemming from the fact that people would rarely show up: necessitating written communications to the public and media that would in turn spur claims the releases were inaccurate.
"What was reported to me is that at the first session there may be some group of the public present, but that the people present would typically and by majority be teachers," Stitzel said. The audience would dwindle during following meetings. "Most other members of the public would not find the session sufficiently interesting or informative to sit through a three- or four-hour negotiation session," including members of the press.
Stitzel said publicly elected board members could also become more reticent during back-and-forth bargaining, and be blasted by some members of the community when they compromised.
Audience members who did attend, even if not allowed to comment, still expressed themselves through "nonverbal" means of expression, including "staring intently" at negotiators at the table.
Clarity of message and the public’s unfamiliarity with the negotiation process were additional concerns not necessarily improved by more open talks.
"Boards would benefit themselves by having more public discussions about the collective bargaining agreement that is going to be negotiated before the negotiations begin, so that the public understands that, OK, these are issues that are worthy of negotiation and ought to be addressed," Stitzel concluded.
Kinney said he had been involved in negotiations since the 1980s. "I want it televised. I want the people to hear who says what."
"We’ve been through two strikes, I don’t think we need a third one," he continued. "We haven’t done it, we should do it."
Board member and Mount Anthony Union representative Leon Johnson reflected a opinion more along the lines of an agreed-upon communication after each session relating the items discussed. "That’s an agreed thing," he said.
"If you’re looking to solve the problem, we know what everyone is going to do. ... How do we solve these problems?" Johnson said.
The supervisory union gave a narrow majority approval to the notion of open negotiations June 20. The Shaftsbury and Southwest Vermont Career Development Center boards approved similar resolutions.
Contacted in May about the idea of open talks, union President Stephannie Peters said public negotiations weren’t helpful and would likely not help to move the process along.
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