BENNINGTON — Open negotiations between the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union and education support professionals (ESP) on a new contract have begun, but already one side is requesting that they go back behind closed doors.
Norm Bartlett of the National Education Association, the union that represents both teachers and ESPs, said, "Executive sessions in collective bargaining are allowed by law, as we all know," said Bartlett, "It is generally thought that it is more efficient to hold negotiations in executive session. It is much more productive when both sides are candid, which they may or may not be with television cameras and reporters in the room. I know it's appropriate because almost all the negotiations we are a part of take place in executive session."
"It is our opinion," responded SVSU legal counsel John Klesch, of the law firm Stitzel, Page, and Fletcher, "based on recent case law, that negotiation meetings between boards and unions is not expressly authorized by the open meeting law. The collective bargaining provision, as a gateway into executive session, requires the affirmative finding that premature public knowledge would lead to a substantial disadvantage to the public entity. There is a court decision know that seems to interpret that as the correct view, that there is not a blanket justification to conduct negotiation meetings in executive session.
Bartlett described open negotiations as "a charade we don't need to get into," but then said, "If it's against the law, we don't want to do anything to violate our laws. But, as I recall, most bargaining goes on in closed sessions." Bartlett said he would review the law, and no agreement was reached on the issue by the end of Tuesday's two-hour meeting.
The term ESP covers all non-teaching personnel in the schools, including secretaries, paraeducators, counselors, etc. Tuesday's negotiations focused on setting the ground rules for future talks. The current contract is set to expire on June 30.
The school board side of the negotiations was made up of Mount Anthony representative Leon Johnson, Shaftsbury representative Holly Bahan, Pownal representative Cynthia Brownell, Career Development Center representative Ed Letourneau, SVSU Human Resources Manager Renee Gordon, and SVSU Director of Human Resources Ed McTernan. Bennington is represented by Jackie Prue, who was not present at Tuesday's meeting. The ESP side was made up of Marion Stevens of Pownal Elementary, Lauri Wright of the CDC, Tim Burgess of Mount Anthony Union Middle School, Lisa Dufresne of MAUMS, Elaine Moyant of Shaftsbury Elementary School, and Dorothy Marcoux of Molly Stark Elementary School.
The SVSU held contract negotiations in open session for the first time last year, when school officials negotiated a two-year contract with teachers. After those negotiations concluded, board member Fran Kinney, who had been one of the biggest proponents for open negotiations, said, "I have to thank the teacher team, because these have been the best negotiations I've ever sat in, and I'm sure for others also. You heard the horror stories, 'we can't have open negotiations,' but I think it's because we had open negotiations that it went so smoothly. I'm not saying it wasn't contentious at times, but it was really a breath of fresh air to go through that process and have it end up like it did. Everyone was happy."
Bartlett represented the teachers in those negotiations as well.
In 2013, when the topic of open negotiations was first broached at the board level, Kinney was quoted as saying, "What this shows is we're willing to put our cards out on the table. If we really want to negotiate in good faith, and you have nothing to hide, why not?"
On Tuesday, Kinney, who was watching the negotiations from the audience, said he was disappointed in the request to close the meetings, and said, "I'm going to push that the board stick to it, and maintain transparency."
The next meeting is scheduled for May 11 at 4 p.m., although it is yet unclear whether that will be held in open or closed session.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.