BENNINGTON >> The representatives of the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union and its education support personnel took a step forward in contract negotiations on Wednesday, agreeing to ground rules that will keep the meetings open to the public.
ESP counsel Norm Bartlett requested in April, and again on Wednesday, that the negotiations be held in closed session. After a caucus on Wednesday to discuss the issue, however, the SVSU representatives said they could not agree to that, in the name of transparency to the public, but agreed that they would consider holding negotiations on certain topics in closed session, on a case-by-case basis.
"We don't have any problem with the board communicating with the public," said Bartlett, "through press releases, or press conferences, you could even have an SVSU blog. But we do think it is restrictive to have meeting open." He said that open meeting law would make entering and exiting caucuses ponderous, and cited the privacy rights of his negotiating team. "You are all public figures, and we're not," he said, "I don't much care, because I don't live here, but it seems to me that the members of our negotiating team should have some degree of privacy, and that might be better served by having meetings in closed session, and I'd like you to consider that."
"From this board's perspective, it is not our intention, by any means to put you on the spot as community members," said SVSU legal counsel Dina Atwood, of Stitzel, Page, and Fletcher, "It is a concern for this board that there is transparency in what is done, in terms of the community understanding what is going on, in terms of how the school board operates, in terms of how contracts are negotiated. My understanding is, absent them telling me something different, that there is a very strong feeling on this board to do the majority of the negotiations in open session." She said that she recently completed successful contract negotiations in open session.
After a caucus, Atwood responded to the request, saying, "The board has discussed it at length, and we are convinced that the way it should be dealt with is on a case-by-case basis. If there are concerns that would make it appropriate for the board to enter executive session, the board will consider that." She said Bartlett could contact her in advance of a meeting if he though a subject should be discussed in closed session, but said that, as a rule, the meetings should be open.
Bartlett said that while his team would prefer the negotiations be closed, he acknowledged the board's right to choose, and agreed to withdraw that proposal.
The term ESP covers all non-teaching personnel in the schools, including secretaries, paraeducators, counselors, etc. The current contract is set to expire on June 30.
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.
The two sides will submit initial proposals electronically by the May 20, and will next meet on May 26 at 4 p.m. and again on June 13 at 4 p.m., both in the conference room at the Southwest Vermont Career Development Center, to discuss those proposals.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.