A teacher strike that began last Thursday has emptied school classrooms in Vermont’s largest city, but the head of the Burlington teachers’ union says the walk-out isn’t about money or benefits.
Fran Brock, a high school history teacher and president of the Burlington Education Association, says the city’s first teacher strike since 1978 has more to do with teachers’ time than their salaries.
“Our teachers, particularly in the elementary school, desperately need time during the school day to prepare, to collaborate, to assess, to evaluate student-centered learning plans, so each and every student can succeed,” Brock says.
Brock says elementary school teachers, in particular, don’t have that time, because they’re required to supervise students during lunch and recess. And she says the Burlington School Board’s unwillingness to relieve them of that duty is what led to the walkout.
“We’re less than a percent away or so on the salary and health benefit issues. We’re just so close to settling that that that’s not really the driving force here,” Brock says.
Brock spoke to reporters Monday morning outside Lyman C. Hunt Middle School, where about 100 educators were picketing along a sidewalk on North Ave.
“We know the strike is a strain on the community — that’s not lost on us,” Brock says.
Nearly 4,000 students attend Burlington’s public schools; Brock says the strike has no doubt been a logistical nightmare for many of their parents. But she says teachers resorted to this option as a matter of necessity.
“I think there were people who didn’t think that we really would strike,” Brock says.
Stephanie Seguino, the vice-chairwoman of the Burlington School Board, says she appreciates teachers’ desire to focus on other professional duties during lunch and recess.
“And yet the evidence tells us that that is when bullying occurs, whether it’s due to sexism or homophobia and so forth,” Seguino says.
Brock says the supervisory duties needed to avert that bullying could be left to para-educators during lunch and recess. But Seguino says it would be administratively difficult to bring new employees in solely for those times of the day.
“And, teachers know students from their classroom, so they can anticipate issues that will emerge on the playground and in the lunch room,” Seguino says.
A mediator has called the school board and the teachers union back to the bargaining table on Tuesday morning. Seguino says the board is prepared to find “innovative” solutions to the issue of teacher time. And she says “if in fact the issues are around the elementary school day issues, then I’m very optimistic” the dispute will be resolved.
But Burlington isn’t the only contractual hot spot in Vermont right now. According to the Vermont-NEA, only 41 percent of teachers have inked contracts for the coming year.
Nicole Mace, the executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, says that percentage is “low for this time of year.”
“You would normally expect more agreements to have been settled,” Mace says.
Mace says the fiscal constraints boards are wrestling with are real. And with so many districts already at impasse, she says other communities may soon be dealing their own labor issues.
“I’m concerned that we’re headed towards a period of six weeks or so where there’s going to be increased labor strife,” Mace says.
Teachers and school board members in Burlington will meet at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday.