Among his proposals, the Governor in his budget sought to transfer the cost of childcare, higher education, and part of the cost of teacher’s retirement to the Education Fund. He proposed adding $135.9 Million dollars of costs into the Education Fund and increasing the General Fund Transfer to the Education Fund by $86 Million leaving a difference of roughly $50 million dollars. To make up the difference he proposed that school boards go back and level fund their budgets. This proposal comes late in the game and would, as he proposed, require postponing to May 23rd the date on which communities vote on school budgets. On Friday, an amendment to a bill came before the House that would have changed the date of budget votes to May 23rd. The Houser rejected the amendment on a vote of 87 to 47.
The following is a statement that I made during the debate on the amendment:
South Burlington School administrators started work on this year’s school budget back in September. The School Board had its first meeting regarding the budget at the end of September. Work continued on the budget into January. Administrators and the Board put in many hours to ensure that we had a budget that would fulfill the ends of our District. A budget that would ensure that our students are ready for college, careers, or their next steps in life at a cost that the community will support.
Our costs are going up. We have seen increased needs of students who are walking through our doors. We are obligated to provide an appropriate education for all of these students. Our special education costs are going up and our costs to implement state mandates are rising. It took significant time and effort to come up with a budget that meets these needs.
Administrators and school boards should not have to spend another three months of valuable time to redo budgets, to undo the significant work they have accomplished. There are too many other important priorities on which time and energy should be spent to ensure that our public schools continue to be one of the major attractions of our community.
Two other reasons why I am against this amendment. First, to level fund a budget, we in South Burlington would undoubtably have to cut significant numbers of teachers and staff. But we are obligated to provide notices of reductions in force by late March. We are obligated to have all contracts signed with teachers by May first. A budget vote on May 23rd would be beyond these deadlines. Even if those deadlines were removed, problems would be presented. We need to provide notice to teachers on whether they will be employed at our school next year soon. If they are not coming back, they need the time to find new positions.
If we are to significantly change how we are funding our schools, this body needs to be very deliberate and careful. We should tread lightly when dealing with this most important asset of Vermont.
Aki Soga, the Burlington Free Press Editorial Page editor, wrote an Op Ed article on the unsuccessful attempt in the legislature to ban teacher strikes. He concluded that “[a]nyone who sees in the defeat of the strike ban provision only an affirmation of the status quo lacks the vision to be a leader in education in Vermont.”
Also, I had the opportunity last week to discuss the vote on my amendment to ban teachers strikes and school board impositions in “Under the Golden Dome,” a program produced weekly during the legislative session. You can watch the video here. My clip is toward the end of the video.
Finally, here is a link to a post-mortem on the issue that appeared on the Seven Days web site.
The following is the script that I used in reporting out an amendment today to prohibit strikes and imposition and to form a task force for considering further changes to collective bargaining. I ad libbed a bit, but this captures most of my talk. Here is a link to the House Journal for the day. My amendment starts at page 980. The amendment was defeated 73-70. Here is a link to an article on the issue in the Burlington Free Press.
My experience as a member of the South Burlington School Board informs my view point on this amendment, which I have cosponsored.
A little over four years ago, the South Burlington School Board voted to impose contract terms on the district’s teachers. As a member of the Board, I voted against imposition. I won’t go into the details of my reasoning, but I believed that in order to justify imposing contract terms a school board had to have no other choice. Given the turmoil imposition causes, it should be used rarely, if at all. There are other options.
Many of the community members the Board heard from during that time four years ago agreed and said it better than I can.
One community member wrote the following:
“The members of the school board and the teachers taking on negotiations have an opportunity to model to our children that when things get tough, it is best to sit down and talk it out. Teachers often say, “Use your words.” Please practice this. Sit down and talk some more and if that doesn’t work . . . get creative by sharing more ideas.”
Another community member said the following:
“The faculty in your schools spend their days teaching, among many other things, children to have discussions when they have problems with each other. They work with students so they develop skills to be able to sit down and talk things out. What a poor, poor example you are setting for the youth in South Burlington.”
“By imposing a contract on the South Burlington teachers you are sending a message to our community that you are unwilling to communicate and work towards a mutually acceptable resolution to the current labor and budget crisis.”
Many other community members made similar points. I think they are correct. There are other ways to resolve disputes between teachers and school boards that don’t involve imposition or the threat of imposition.
At the same time, there are other ways to resolve disputes between teachers and school boards that don’t involve strikes or the threat of strikes.
This past fall South Burlington endured a five-day strike before settling a contract. We heard similar input from the community then.
The following message was sent to both the teacher’s Association and the School Board:
“I plead with you, please find a way to seek a reasonable, logical, sustainable contract negotiation that keeps our children the main focus and for our community members who are raising them. We personally are prepared to wait however long that may take.”
Another community member said the following:
“I can’t help but wonder what the poor behavior and negotiation tactics are teaching our youth. They certainly are watching and learning. Is it okay to push around another group of people? Is it okay to threaten others? To storm out if you don’t get your way?”
We also received many emails and comments from individuals expressing the emotional impact the strike had on them and their children, and the bitterness and enmity that it caused.
In the end, what did the strike accomplish? It definitely caused a serious drop in community support for the district’s teachers. I and other school board members heard from many individuals who expressed their anger, not at the board, but at the teachers.
What else did the strike accomplish? Before the strike, the board had a proposal on the table that provided a bit over 7% in new money over three years. After the strike, the teachers had managed to raise this figure to a bit over 8%. The enmity of the community for a one percent gain over three years.
Last fall was not the first teachers’ strike that I have lived through. My father was a teacher and a member of the Michigan Educators Association, part of the NEA. He was in a leadership position and was the spokesperson for the Union when it struck back in 1970. Unlike today, that was a time when teachers made far less than the median income in the communities in which they worked. The strike did improve that situation. But the cost was great. As my mom has told me, for years afterwards people would avoid her in town because her husband had gone on strike. It took years for the community to recover.
This bill, H.76, wisely eliminates both the right of school boards to impose contract terms and the right of teachers to strike.
By doing so, it would improve the collective bargaining process. It will require the parties to engage in meaningful dialogue. Currently, with the threat of imposition and strike, too often the parties talk past each other or don’t talk at all. Instead of compromise, the parties cling to their positions and brandish their threats of imposition or strike. The Board has the incentive to say, if we don’t get our way, we will impose. The teachers have the incentive to say, if we don’t get our way, we will strike. That mind set needs to be changed, and this amendment does that.
I have spoken about my experiences in South Burlington. But I have had the opportunity to speak to many other school board members from across the state, and they share this view. The threat of strikes and imposition are not productive and, indeed, impeded compromise.
So, at Section 1 of the bill, we find the heart of the matter – strikes and imposition shall be prohibited. The Effective Dates provision of the bill, Section 5, provides that the prohibition on strikes and imposition applies to negotiations beginning on or after July 1, 2016.
Sections 2 and 3 of the bill repeal two provisions that with the prohibition on strikes and contract imposition would cause the statute to become internally inconsistent.
Section 4 establishes a task force on dispute resolution in labor relations for teachers and administrators and requires a report from the task force. It is in section 4 that the changes from the amendment in the calendar appear. I’ll point those out momentarily.
This section replaces the dispute resolution mechanism that was in the amended bill voted out from the education committee. It represents the primary change to what the education committee passed out of committee and what the House General committee has considered.
The education committee felt that the dispute resolution mechanism was appropriate. Also, testimony was provided in House General from labor lawyers who said that the mechanism would work. Nevertheless, members of House General had serious and legitimate reservations about the mechanism. Accordingly, this amendment establishes a task force to consider further the rules for teacher collective bargaining when strikes and imposition are prohibited.
Let me note here that 38 states prohibit teacher strikes. All of the New England states with the exception of Vermont prohibit strikes. The vast majority of New England states are able to reach timely settlements without strikes or imposition being an option. With few exceptions, these states are doing fine and are reaching finality in contract negotiations. Indeed, all but one of these states are paying their teachers higher wages than in Vermont, despite those teachers not having the right to strike.
This amendment allows additional consideration of what is and is not working with these states. And the fact that strikes and imposition would be prohibited as of July 2016 would add incentive for the task force to come back with a timely, thorough analysis.
One might ask, but what if we can’t come up with a new way to get to finality? I submit that the current collective bargaining system would work fine, even without the right to strike or impose. Under current law, the parties may mediate, go to fact finding, or even agree to binding arbitration. If the system stays the same except for the elimination of strikes and imposition, it will still be an improvement that should lead to more creative problem solving at the negotiating table. It is better than having the end game of negotiations be a strike or contract imposition.
Let me point out one change from the amendment as it appears in the calendar. The amendment did not allow the task force to consider mandatory binding arbitration as an option. We wanted the task force to focus on finding a solution that does not entail binding arbitration. Given concerns that we heard expressed, we have struck the language that prohibited consideration of binding arbitration.
End of Section 4 (a) and (c)
I note that only one New England state mandates binding arbitration.
My opposition to binding arbitration is that it is fundamentally undemocratic. It puts in the hands of an unaccountable third party, rather than the elected school Board, decisions related to 80% of a school’s budget. It puts in the hands of an unelected third party the decision that will impact the property taxes that the community must pay for education. The third party would have no fiscal responsibility or accountability to the community, nor would he or she necessarily be familiar with community issues. That is not a solution that the legislature should support.
In addition, binding arbitration is not a means to find the creative, cooperative solutions that we now need to find through the negotiations process. We are facing continued spending pressures in education, particularly now with the cap put in place H.361. We are facing rising health care costs. With binding arbitration, school boards and the teachers association will not have the incentive to find creative ways to address the rising costs of health care, or to address increasingly difficult funding issues.
Having said that, the amendment does not preclude consideration of mandatory binding arbitration.
Walk through Section 4
Section 4(a) creates the task force.
Section 4(b) establishes the membership of the task force – representatives of the Vermont NEA and the Vermont School Boards Association. Here is where there is another change from the amendment in the calendar. Rather than having the Executive Director of the Vermont Labor Relations Board on the task force, section (b)(5) provides that the VLRB will appoint an individual with labor relations experience as chair of the task force.
Section 4(c) charges the task force with evaluating possible statutory changes to improve the process for resolving a dispute or impasse during teacher or administrator labor negotiations. It establishes what the task force should consider.
Section 4(d) provides that the task force has to consult certain other interested parties.
What was previously Section 4(e) in the calendar version has been struck.
The new Section 4(e), previously 4(f), provides that on or before November 15, 2015, the task force shall submit a report to certain House and Senate committees.
Section 4(f) provides certain rules regarding meetings of the task force. Here, again the amendment on your desk modifies this provision.
In Summary, eliminating strikes and imposition will
* Avoid the adverse impacts to a community, to schools, and to children who would otherwise have to go through a future strike or imposition.
* Improve the negotiations process by taking away the threat of strikes and imposition, which discourage compromise.
The past week in the legislature has been a full one on many different fronts. I worked on issues that came before the House Judiciary Committee, tracked the action on education funding reform, introduced my own bill related to collective bargaining between school boards and teachers associations, continued to follow potential legislation addressing the cleanup of Lake Champlain and climate change, and tried to continue to be aware in a general sense of the many other issues that are coming before the legislature.
Over the past two weeks, the House Judiciary Committee has heard testimony on and delved into issues related to juvenile justice. It considered H.62, which would prohibit sentences of life without parole for a person who committed his or her offense as a minor. Currently no inmates are serving such a sentence in Vermont. Nevertheless, enactment of the bill would recognize that, because their brains are not fully developed, juvenile offenders are less culpable and have the unique ability to be rehabilitated. Eliminating this harsh sentence would not excuse a juvenile’s behavior, but would provide the opportunity for such an offender to demonstrate rehabilitation to a parole board.
House Judiciary also considered H.95, which relates to jurisdiction over delinquency proceedings by the Family Division of the Superior Court. The objective of the bill is to channel more cases involving juveniles into the Family Division of state court, where certain confidentiality and other procedural protections are in place, rather than adult criminal court, which lacks such protections. The Committee received mixed testimony, the primary concern being whether the Family Division would have the resources to hear these additional cases. Currently, the judicial branch, and in particular the Family Division of state court, lack sufficient resources to keep up with caseloads that have been increasing due to the fallout from the opiate addiction problem in Vermont. Accordingly, we are paying close attention to this resource crunch when considering bills that would expand the number of cases that come before the state courts, particularly the Family Division.
During the course of hearing testimony on these bills, the Committee received interesting and enlightening testimony related to brain development. Current science on this topic supports our efforts to ensure that Vermont’s criminal justice system is appropriately handling juvenile offenders.
The Committee also considered H.105, which would amend the State’s laws related to voyeurism to impose criminal sanctions on individuals who disseminate sexually explicit photographs or videos of individuals online without their consent, even if the photograph or video itself was taken with consent – so-called revenge porn. Websites created specifically for this type of pornography sometimes include a victim’s name, address, and links to social media profiles with the images, and some websites charge a fee to have the materials removed. H.105 is different than laws adopted in most other states in that it also imposes sanctions on dissemination of digitally-altered sexually explicit images of another person without their knowledge and consent. The Committee will hear additional testimony in the coming week, including testimony addressing concerns related to First Amendment protections, particularly with respect to digitally-altered images.
House Judiciary also voted H.86 out of committee. H.86 will amend the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (“UIFSA”), originally enacted in Vermont in 1996. The Act sets forth jurisdictional rules and determines which state’s law applies when more than one state is involved in establishing, enforcing or modifying a child support or spousal order, or is establishing a child’s parentage. UIFSA requires that every state defer to child support orders entered by courts of the child’s home state. Modifications to a support order may occur only in the home state unless the child and parents no longer live there. Custodial parents may request either directly or through the state agency responsible for child support that another state enforce the support order. I will take on the responsibility of reporting out this bill to the full House this coming week. That involves explaining the bill on the floor of the House and responding to any questions.
In addition to my work on the Judiciary Committee, this past Thursday I introduced H.102, “an act relating to labor relations for teachers and administrators,” which is a bill that I have worked on since early December. In an article that will be published this Thursday in The Other Paper, I describe my work on that bill. I’ll post the article next week.
On a lighter note, this past week I discovered that the Statehouse Cafeteria serves up excellent homemade chocolate chip cookies. I already knew that their chef makes the best cake doughnuts in Vermont, if not in all of New England. I, however, am trying to behave and keep my consumption of these delights to a minimum or else I will put on an extra ten pounds by the end of the session.
My first four weeks in the Vermont House of Representatives have been illuminating, engaging, and energizing. I am quickly learning the protocols and procedures of Vermont lawmaking and familiarizing myself with the many challenges facing the legislature this session.
The Vermont General Assembly is considering a number of complex and potentially divisive issues, including child protection, education governance and funding, health care reform, production of a balanced budget for the next fiscal year, Lake Champlain cleanup, job growth, marijuana legalization, and mandated universal background checks for gun purchases. I am trying to keep tabs on these and other issues. Nearly seven hundred bills will likely be introduced during this session, though only a small percentage of those will actually become law.
I have jumped right into my duties on the House Judiciary Committee, co-sponsoring two pieces of legislation related to child support. One bill, H.85, would allow the Office of Child Support (“OCS”) to notify individuals electronically of administrative actions regarding enforcement of support orders. This bill is currently stalled as OCS reconsiders its approach after the Committee expressed a number of concerns at a hearing on the bill earlier this week. The second bill, H.86, would extend the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act to other countries that are members of a convention signed in 2007. The Committee will hear further testimony on that bill next week and may vote to send it to the House floor. I expect that it will pass the House, then move to the Senate for consideration. The bills I sponsor appear on my House Legislative web page here.
The Judiciary Committee has broad jurisdiction and deals with myriad issues. Bills already before the Committee involve adverse possession, transfers of property to minors, prohibition of life sentences without parole for minors, and jurisdiction over delinquency proceedings in the family court. My legal background has proved to be invaluable in understanding the issues before the Committee and in interpreting the language of proposed legislation.
With eight out of eleven members new to the Committee, we spent time during the first weeks of the session familiarizing ourselves with the issues, laws, and governmental and other organizations that come before it. Among others, we heard introductory testimony from Vermont’s Attorney General and Defender General, the Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, the Executive Director of the Vermont Bar Association, the Commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, the State’s Attorneys’ Office, several legislative liaisons from law enforcement, and a number of nongovernmental organizations. Here is a link to the Committee’s web page and its daily agendas.
One presentation before the Committee was particularly surprising and disturbing. Yesterday, we heard from officers of the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Border Patrol, and the Vermont State Police on matters related to human trafficking; here is a link to a news story on the topic. We learned that trafficking of women for prostitution is a growing problem in Vermont and is frequently linked to the drug trade and addiction. We are not likely to see any bills on the issue this session; the State Police Officer specifically said that law enforcement does not want to see any changes to the law, as it currently provides the correct framework for their efforts. He did, however, emphasize that the legislature needs to continue to provide resources for addiction treatment to help the victims of human trafficking.
Last week the House passed the first bill, H.16, that was voted out of the Judiciary Committee this session. H.16 requires certain inmates to report to the Sex Offender Registry before their release from a correctional facility. It specifically addresses a small number of offenders who are “maxing out,” or leaving a corrections facility without any further supervision or contact with the Department of Corrections (“DOC”). This was what is called a technical correction bill because it merely codified current practice, though the DOC and others testified that it is best to have it clear in the law.
A bill to which the Committee will likely give significant attention started in the Senate and should arrive on House Judiciary’s doorstep in mid-February. S.9 is a multifaceted bill addressing child protection matters. The bill came out of a joint committee that met before the session started following the deaths last year of two young children in families that the Department of Children and Families were working with. The House Judiciary Committee participated in joint hearings with the House Human Services, Senate Health & Welfare, and Senate Judiciary committees to receive background information on S.9.
Besides my duties on the Judiciary Committee, I have been working on a bill related to collective bargaining between school boards and teacher associations. I worked with the Office of Legislative Council to put my ideas related to the fact finding process and arbitration into a draft bill and then lobbied other legislators to co-sponsor the bill with me. It will be introduced next Tuesday and I am to present the concepts behind the bill to the General, Housing & Military Affairs Committee, which takes up bills related to labor laws. I will discuss this bill in more depth in a future post. In the meantime, here is a link to a newscast where I am briefly discussing the idea behind it.
Because Chittenden District 7-1 abuts Lake Champlain, I am also keeping track of how the legislature is addressing the cleanup of Vermont’s waters. I have been attending weekly information meetings of the Water Caucus, a group of House and Senate legislators who are interested in this particular problem and solutions, and I have been following introduced bills related to the issue.
It’s not all toil in the Vermont Capital. I have joined the Statehouse Singers, a group of legislators and statehouse staff who meet for short rehearsals during the session. Yesterday, for the devotional (a daily poem, homily, or music), the Statehouse Singers sang Vermont’s State Song, These Green Mountains. The acoustics in the chamber are fabulous and I have to say we sounded great.