TRSU staff negotiations may bust legal budgets again

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Despite requests from members of the Green Mountain Unified School District board to see how legal costs could be contained, the teacher bargaining council for the Two Rivers Supervisory Union continues to have a Burlington attorney attend every negotiating meeting at a cost of more than $1,100 in travel over and above his time giving advice and bargaining.

Marilyn Mahusky chairs the bargaining council which negotiates with the teachers from both of TRSU’s districts. Telegraph file photo

Last year, after The Telegraph revealed that the boards in the SU were unaware of lawsuits and that legal spending was nearly five times the amount budgeted, the administration noted that most of the $82,000 spent on lawyers went not toward lawsuits, but to labor negotiations.

Business Manager Cheryl Hammond distributed a spreadsheet showing that legal bills for teacher and support staff negotiations cost more than $54,000 while the SU and its two districts had budgeted a combined $27,500 for all legal expenses for the entire year.

At the GM board’s Oct. 17, 2019 meeting, member Doug McBride of Cavendish asked if there was any way to make the legal fees “less shocking.” In those negotiations, the schools were represented by Chris Leopold, a Burlington education attorney who attended the meetings.

Long-time board member and labor negotiator Marilyn Mahusky called Leopold’s work “invaluable” and said that it “would be unwise not to have legal counsel involved.” McBride, who like Mahusky is also attorney, agreed, but continued to ask costs could be reined in.

Board member Doug McBride asks to make the legal costs for negotiating labor contracts “less shocking” at the Oct. 17, 2019 GM Finance Committee meeting Telegraph file photo

When McBride brought up the question of cost-containment, board member Michael Studin of Chester asked if every school does it this way. The following day, The Telegraph contacted board members from a number of school districts and supervisory unions in southern Vermont to ask whether their lawyers attend the negotiating sessions. Of the six contacted, four said that lawyers do not attend the sessions. Paige Hiller’s comment was typical of those. Hiller said that the Windsor Central board always has legal counsel available, but that their lawyers do not attend the meetings.

The others said that they have done it both ways with lawyers attending negotiations in some years but not in others. And they differed in how they viewed the value of having lawyers present. David Chandler, who sits on the Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union board, said he had participated in five negotiations. He felt that having a lawyer present at the meetings for one of them was cumbersome and slowed the process. On the other hand, Richard Werner, of Windham Central Supervisory Union, said having a lawyer at the table can be useful especially when working on complex issues.

At the Monday night meeting, Mahusky told The Telegraph that in her opinion there was no other way to do negotiations and that it “… has been a highly effective way in the past.” According to Mahusky, having a lawyer at every meeting has been the board’s position for many years.

“As a result of having face-to-face negotiations, we’ve made some real progress to refine our contract,” said Mahusky. “We’ve moved in a direction that’s very positive.”

Asked twice if the council had looked into any ways — including telephone and digital conferencing — of saving money on their legal fees, Mahusky would not say. She noted that they “have used electronics” when the board negotiating council met, but that they did not include teachers. “For actual negotiations we’ve had face-to-face” with Leopold, she said.

Last year, the negotiations went well into the first year of a two-year contract. Mahusky said that there was no agreement on whether this would be a one- or two-year contract but that they hoped to finish before the current agreement lapses on June 30.

Bargaining council member Michael Studin confirmed he was not notified of the meeting Telegraph file photo

“We hope to be there a hell of a lot sooner than that,” said Mahusky.

The TRSU Teacher Bargaining Council consists of two members from each district. Green Mountain’s members are Mahusky and Michael Studin. Studin said he did not attend because he did not know the meeting was taking place. On Tuesday, he told The Telegraph that he checked his email and folders and confirmed that he had not  received notice of the meeting.

Jennifer Harper, teachers union negotiations spokesperson and a Cavendish Town Elementary teacher, told The Telegraph that the ground rules for the negotiations allow for one spokesperson for each side and that Leopold does the talking for the school system. Harper said the the union decided not to bring area union director Norman Bartlett into the negotiations unless they feel he is needed. Bartlett is not a lawyer.

Harper said she also hopes that the contract will be finished before the next school year begins. In addition to the teacher contract, negotiations on a support staff contract are also getting under way.

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  1. Rama Schneider says:

    I was part of the negotiations team for the school boards in the new Paine Mountain School District (Williamstown and Northfield). It took us over two years to get through the process of unifying the contracts that came out of the two originating districts – as a matter of fact that process is finally dotting and crossing all the i’s and t’s today!

    The money spent on attorneys today will be viewed in the not too distant future as a smart payment. I speak from recent and direct experience.

  2. Aula DeWitt says:

    Thank you for this report. It is important to make sure that all the legal aspects are addressed. It is equally important to demonstrate to the voters that all appropriate efforts have been taken to contain costs. I would think that that attorney would totally understand that and either recommend a local attorney to continue to negotiations or attend via skype or phone from here on.

  3. Marilyn Mahusky says:

    Shawn, I believe I was misquoted. I said, we’ve made real progress “to unify” our contracts. When the TRSU merged into one SU, there were multiple contracts which the bargaining councils have attempted to merge into a unified contract. We have made significant progress on this front. During the last round of contract negotiations we created a salary schedule that will, over time, bring all teachers from both districts onto a single salary scale, resulting in greater equity between our districts.