Commission Recommends Statewide Contract For Teacher Health Benefits

Dec 19, 2017

One of the fiercest political debates of the last legislative session is set for a replay in 2018 after a special commission recommended this week that Vermont overhaul the collective bargaining system at public schools.

Republican Gov. Phil Scott and Democratic lawmakers spent the final weeks of the 2017 legislative session warring over the issue of teacher health benefits.

Right now, teachers negotiate things such as premium share, and out-of-pocket expenses, at the district level, with their local school boards. Scott wanted those negotiations to take place at the state level, and claimed the state could save $26 million a year by doing so.

Scott lost the battle then. But the Republican governor will resume his push next year. And when he does, he’ll carry some new ammunition with him, in the form of a recommendation from a special commission created to study the teacher health issue.

“If we are going to achieve a health benefit program for our K-12 teachers that is consistent and equitable across districts, across employee type, that will be a lot easier to achieve at a statewide level rather than district by district,” says David Provost, chairman of the Vermont Educational Health Benefits Commission.

"I'm hopeful this report will inspire legislative leaders to support this change." — Gov. Phil Scott

By a vote of 6-3, the commission has recommended that lawmakers move forward with a statewide contract for teacher health benefits. Scott says the commission’s findings vindicate his position.

“This is an important step forward in our work to make the education system more affordable, so we can invest more in our kids, and I’m hopeful this report will inspire legislative leaders to support this change,” Scott said in a statement.

But Darren Allen, the communications director for the Vermont-NEA, says the public, and lawmakers, should to take the commission’s findings with a grain of salt.

“Well here’s the stunning news - that a commission comprised mostly of appointees of the governor and those who supported his plan, came out in support of his plan,” Allen said Tuesday.

"This notion that somehow local boards aren't smart enough to negotiate is absurd on its face. The vast majority of them have been able to do so." — Darren Allen, Vermont-NEA

The commission was created as part of compromise back in June, after Scott vetoed the state budget because lawmakers wouldn’t go along with his teacher health overhaul.

It’s true that supporters of the governor’s proposal, or people that were appointed by him, occupied a majority of the commission slots (although it’s notable that the pick from the Senate's Committee on Committees, which is controlled by Democrats, did side with the majority).

Allen says Scott’s plan would undermine the integrity of the collective bargaining system in Vermont, by stripping local boards and unions of a critical bargaining chip. And he says local boards have, for the most part, successfully negotiated health contracts since the Legislature adjourned in June.

“This notion that somehow local boards aren’t smart enough to negotiate is absurd on its face. The vast majority of them have been able to do so,” Allen says.

Scott has listed taxpayer savings as the main reason to move forward with his plan. Provost, however, said the commission was unable to find documentable savings associated with moving to the statewide benefit.

“We didn’t see significant cost savings that we were able to identify in the work that we did,” Provost said.

Provost said the commission’s recommendation was driven by a desire to create equity across district lines, on how much teachers and other school employees pay for their health plans.

This post was edited on 12/21/17 to correct the name of the entity that appointed one of the commission members.