Sen. Joe Benning speaks as Rep. Kurt Wright listens.
As the Burlington teachers' strike entered its third day on Monday, two lawmakers revived a proposal they said would provide a long-term fix.
Rep. Kurt Wright (R-Burlington) and Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) said they will introduce identical bills that would prohibit teachers from striking and prevent school boards from imposing contracts. The proposal would smooth negotiations and "eliminate the nuclear option on both sides," said Wright, who has long sought to ban teacher strikes.
This time around, Wright said, is different. The property tax pressures and health care contract negotiations facing school boards mean that strikes may be more likely.
The legislators announced the plan at a press conference in Burlington and painted the proposal as facilitating reconciliation in a divisive conversation. According to Wright, 37 states, including all the other New England states, have laws banning teacher strikes and contract impositions.
The Vermont-National Education Association came out against the proposal. Wright "brings this up every year and he'll probably continue to do so," said VT-NEA spokesperson Darren Allen.
Allen described the Burlington strike as a rare occurrence. The strike is only the 27th in Vermont since 1978, according to NEA documents. "The reality is, over 5,000 contracts have been agreed to" without strikes, Allen said. He called a strike "a last-resort option that is rarely used."
Benning and Wright emphasized their support for teachers and the work they do in the classroom. "We support teachers' right to strike," Wright said. But, he added, "we know that is not the right way to go forward."
"It's not an anti-teacher or anti-union bill," Wright added. "It's pro-family, pro-teacher in the sense it keeps teachers doing what they want to do, and pro-community."
The bills would create a task force to examine what to do if an impasse is reached and require that contract negotiations be public unless both parties agree to enter closed-door executive sessions. The bills will be introduced in both chambers when the legislature convenes in January.
Allen pointed out that Wright's bill proposed no solution if a board and teachers can't resolve their differences.
Teachers picketing in front of Burlington High School Friday
House Education Committee chair Dave Sharpe (D-Bristol) said he would advocate to change the existing system but could not support a bill that does not include an alternative process. That was the sticking point in 2015, he recalled.
"There has to be a way to come to a conclusion," he said.
With a full plate for the committee next session, he said, he could not guarantee the committee would take up the proposal.
Gov. Phil Scott's office released a written statement about the proposal.
"I’ve supported the right to impose contracts and the right to strike," Scott's statement said. "However, the disruption and strain a strike puts on students and parents is clear, and I understand the concerns Sen. Benning and Rep. Wright are working to address. If this proposal is passed by the legislature, I’ll give it fair consideration with the understanding that — however we move forward — we must ensure affordability, fairness and local accountability are central to any process regarding contract disputes."
The announcement from Wright and Benning came as tension built over the Burlington strike. Two city homes with lawn signs expressing support for teachers had windows broken by vandals who likely used an air gun, police reported on Monday. Burlington superintendent Yaw Obeng released a statement condemning harassment of those protesting.
"Although there is a difference in negotiations, the board and the district value and respect the right of the teachers to strike," Obeng said. "There is no place for any type of bullying or harassment in our community."
The two sides will return to the bargaining table on Tuesday with a mediator.
The anger sparked by strikes leaves lasting scars on a community, Wright and Benning said. "There's still animosity" from the Caledonia North Education Association strike in 1980, Benning said.