News analysis: Is GMUSD’s ‘no raises for anybody’ stance in flux? Two resignations point to disagreement

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2020 Telegraph Publishing, LLC

Two recent resignations appear to point to some dissension over the Green Mountain Unified School District’s position in bargaining with its teachers. Until recently, the board had taken a “no raises” stance due to the budget uncertainty brought on by the economic damage done by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Marilyn Mahusky resigned from the Teacher Bargaining Council on Aug.19. Telegraph file photo

But that stance may be in flux as the school boards within Two Rivers Supervisory Union prepared to restart negotiations with teacher’s union reps which stalled when Covid-19 closed the schools.

Teacher negotiations are conducted in executive sessions as are the strategy meetings among the school district boards and their bargaining councils, so there is no way for the public to know for certain what is going on.

But some piecing together of the situation up to now points to a disagreement within the GM board on its no-raise position that ended up with board member Doug McBride and negotiator Marilyn Mahusky resigning one day apart. Members of both school boards — the Green Mountain board and the Ludlow-Mt. Holly board — declined to speak about the nuts and bolts of the negotiations but several agreed to confirm details of the process.

The “no raises” stance came out of a joint meeting of the TRSU board with the GM and LMH boards on May 7. Although the agreement was reached in executive session, later in the meeting, during a discussion on funding a new special education program, GMUSD board chair Joe Fromberger inadvertently spilled the beans.

“I’m just very reluctant to start on another program in times that we’ve just decided are so bad that we don’t want to do any salary increases at all, for anybody,” said Fromberger, who represents Andover.

But on Aug. 11, at a special meeting, the GM board met in executive session with veteran education attorney Chris Leopold and with Mahusky, a former GM school board member who had been asked by the board to continue negotiating until the end of this contract cycle.  The following night, Mahusky and Leopold met in another executive session, this time with the Ludlow-Mt. Holly board. Members of those boards confirmed that Mahusky and Leopold advocated giving raises to the teachers.

The minutes for those meetings reflected that the boards did not take action after returning to the public meeting.  But since the boards had reached their original no raise stance behind closed doors and without taking formal action The Telegraph asked the GM board several times if they had come to a decision while in executive session.

Board member Doug McBride resigned on Aug. 20. Telegraph file photo.

In response to The Telegraph’s questions, both Fromberger and TRSU Superintendent Lauren Fierman said that no decisions were made in the executive session. But board member Doug McBride of Cavendish put a spin on his  answer that made it seem as though the board had been presented with opportunities to change its stance but resisted.

“It’s my belief that the board really worked hard to not make decisions,” said McBride, “and I’m really proud of the board for staying the course.”

One week later, during a meeting of the bargaining council, Mahusky resigned and left the meeting because the raise proposal that she was advocating was not gaining traction. “I’ve been the face of teacher bargaining for a number of contract cycles,” Mahusky told The Telegraph in a recent interview. “And I did not think that the negotiators from Green Mountain accurately reflected the conversations we had in executive session.”

Board member Michael Studin was the only other negotiator from GM. McBride was attending in his capacity as a member of the council beginning with the next negotiating cycle but did not participate in the meeting.

The following evening, at the beginning of the Aug. 20 GMUSD board meeting, chair Joe Fromberger added replacing Mahusky to the agenda under “new business.” Then, in an unusual step, he moved the new business item to the to the beginning of the meeting – ahead of the “board comment” period in which members are free to speak about any concerns they have.

Asked by board member Kate Lamphere of Cavendish why he was moving the agenda item, Fromberger said the new business portion of the agenda was quite long and “waiting until the latter part of the agenda would make it very trying to get through that. I’m hoping that we can get through this longer list upfront so we can have a better time for the administrative reports…”

When the board took up the question of who should replace Mahusky, board vice chair Deb Brown quickly moved to appoint Fromberger, saying “as the board chair you would have the most knowledge and be able to go into that position seamlessly.”

GM Board member Michael Studin was elected to the chair of the bargaining council on Aug. 26. Telegraph file photo

But Studin noted that since McBride had attended the previous night’s meeting and that he was up to speed – or could be quickly. The board voted to put Fromberger on the council with Studin voting no.

The following day, McBride, who has long advocated containing the growth of the school budget and critical of paying for Leopold to attend all of the bargaining meetings — especially pre-Covid when the cost of Leopold’s travel to and from Burlington was $1,100 per meeting —  resigned his position on the GM board representing Cavendish. McBride would not comment on his resignation.

The bargaining landscape

At a February GMUSD board meeting, Mahusky said the bargaining council hoped to have the teacher contract wrapped up before the then-current contract ended on June 30, 2020. But as with so many things, the Covid-19 pandemic sidelined the negotiations, which are beginning again.

On Aug. 26, the TRSU Bargaining Council met for the first time since Mahusky resigned and Fromberger replaced her. Before going into executive session, Fromberger and Paul Orzechowski of the LMH board elected Studin to the chair.

Teacher bargaining meetings are scheduled to resume with a meeting on Thursday Sept. 3, 2020.

Teacher salaries follow a schedule in the form of a step chart based on education and years of experience and for the 2019/2020 school year ran from from $41,400 for a starting teacher with a bachelor’s degree to $89,400 for a teacher with a certificate of advanced graduate studies and 28 years of experience. Not included in those numbers are a benefit package of  medical and dental coverage and a Vermont state pension plan.

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