Some In Bennington Frustrated By Strike

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(Host) Schools remained closed Tuesday for some 3,000 Bennington area students as unionized teachers walked the picket line for a fifth day.

School officials handed out bag lunches and breakfasts in several locations so that kids who count on school meals wouldn’t go hungry. As negotiations between teachers and the school boards dragged on, local residents vented their frustrations with both sides.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) Bennington Elementary School Principal Jim Law spent his lunch hour distributing meals at the Willow Brook Apartments.

(Law) "Here we go, these are breakfasts. These are lunches. And then there’s milk to go with each of those."

(Parent) "Thank you."

(Keese) These are free meals that the children would otherwise get at school. So they’re picking the bags up here, and in half a dozen other locations in Pownal, Shaftsbury, North Bennington and Bennington.

Several parents say that they respect the teachers but don’t understand why they insist on more money when so many people in town have taken pay cuts.

But Alicia Bowen is mad. She’s here with her teenage daughter

(Bowen) "I think it’s stupid. The teachers are whining that they’re not making enough money when there’s millions out there that can’t find a job."

(Keese) A few blocks away, teachers picketed outside the offices of the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, while inside negotiations continued.

Board Member Tim Holbrook is a negotiator for the district.

(Holbrook) "In terms of the major issues, they really remain the same/Hours and duties, the amount of time that teachers spend with kids, health insurance, and salaries."

(Keese) The teachers have said repeatedly that the real issue is the boards’ unwillingness to use the last negotiated union contract, from 2008, as a starting point for talks.

Last June, after failing to agree on renewing that contract, the school boards exercised their legal power to impose their own working conditions. The teachers have been working all year under that imposed contract.

Teachers say the imposed contract includes lower base pay and higher payments for health care benefits. More important they say, it ignores a schedule of pay raises the teachers say took decades of negotiations to establish.

Darren Allen is a field representative for the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association.

(Allen) "Had they all along negotiated with the teachers  from the base from which they last agreed, these people would not be on strike, because they’ve always said, we are willing to talk about salary, we are willing to talk about  health care the school day – but not based on your unilateral decision of where that’s going to start."

(Keese) Allen says negotiated contracts are the accumulated agreements between a community and its teachers. He says school boards around the state have increasingly imposed contracts when negotiations have faltered. Allen says that’s a departure that does not respect the collective bargaining process.

School Board negotiator Tim Holbrook says he thinks the sides have finally gotten past that disagreement by comparing the 2008 union contract with last year’s imposed conditions.

(Holbrook) "The contracts had approximately 200 different articles. We put the two contracts together and we agreed on 170 of those 200 articles. What we’re working on is the remaining, 30 or 25, and each day we have been able to eliminate a few of those areas within the contracts that there’s been a disagreement to."

(Keese) Holbrook says the two sides are down to a very few areas of disagreement. Darren Allen, the Union field representative, says he’s also encouraged.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese in Bennington.

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