The public school district in Vermont’s largest city cancelled classes and all activities Thursday as teachers began a Burlington School District-wide strike.
The strike came after nine hours of negotiations with a mediator Wednesday led to an impasse. The school board issued a statement saying the obstacles to agreement are a salary increase, a three-year contract term and health insurance savings.
The Burlington Education Association, the teachers’ union, disputes the board’s statement. President Fran Brock says the two sides were close on financial issues and talks fell apart over non-teaching duties for elementary teachers. “Unfortunately they’re not listening to us. We’ve told them that the elementary school language is crucial. Teachers need to have the time to work both in creating and preparing lessons and services and programs to our students, to work one-on-one with students. And that became part of that elementary school language that was ignored yesterday and really what really led Ira Lobell (the mediator) to recognize that things were not going to go any further, ended talks and we then went back to our plan to strike.”
Burlington School Board President Mark Porter says they have done all they can to avert a strike. Regarding the non-teaching duties, he says the board compromised and eliminated morning and afternoon door duties but is adamant teachers remain on lunch and recess monitoring. “We’re really concerned with this because that is the place where the unstructured atmosphere is where the racism, the sexism, the bullying, the taking advantage of the little ones, that’s when it occurs. Much as the teachers want to we want to protect the kids during the whole school day. What we did offer was across the schools just only have no teacher do more than three periods of duties a week. And they said no. But that’s going to be a sticking point forever because we just are not willing to have anybody but the professional teachers out there during those periods in order to protect these children. And it’s needed.”
Parent Shoshannah Boray stopped by the Burlington High School picket line with two children. “We stopped by to support our teachers. I think they had no choice but to go on strike. This issue has been looming for many years. The high school in particular is suffering and the board imposed a contract, they stopped negotiating. So the teachers had no choice. We completely support and we know that the teachers did not take this decision lightly.”
Brock says she cannot predict how long the strike will last. “I really have no idea. I’m sure that the board, their lawyers, the mediator are all sort of thinking things through. And as we sort of decide what the next step is we’ll move there. But right now I don’t know that anybody is actually getting in touch with anybody else right now. I think we’re just trying to sort of figure out what happened and figure out some strategies.”
Porter, meanwhile, says it’s up to the union to come back to the table. “It will take the BEA to come back to us and say that they want to reenter negotiations and they want to call off the strike. And our offer is still on the table. We haven’t changed anything. It’s a very, very good package that we offered.”
Serving nearly 4,000 students, the Burlington School District has six elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school. Teachers are picketing at their individual schools.