Arbitrators sided with teachers this month on negotiations over educators’ statewide health care contract, ending months of back-and-forth between the teachers union and the Vermont School Boards Association.

Against the backdrop of rising health care costs, the union and school boards spent most of the year haggling over a new statewide contract for health insurance, covering the period from 2023 to 2026.

The Vermont Education Health Initiative, a nonprofit that provides health coverage to school districts, publishes regular updates on the rising rates of medical plans. Rates for four medical plans jumped an average of roughly 11% between the 2020 and 2021 school years, and are expected to increase another 4% on average by the fall of 2022, according to the health initiative.

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But the Dec. 1 arbitration decision ensured that employers will cover more health care costs for roughly 40,000 Vermonters — teachers, school staff and their dependents.

In October, negotiations deadlocked on the health plan and moved into arbitration.

The stalemate hinged on two issues: how much school boards should pay out-of-pocket for union members’ medical costs and how health care grievances would be handled.

In testimony before arbitrators, school board representatives argued that teachers’ health plans were already generous, and making teachers shoulder more out-of-pocket costs would simply strip some “shiny chrome” from the “Rolls Royce” plan, according to a summary written by arbitrators.

But the teachers union argued that, for members at lower income levels or who needed more medical care, the proposed changes could “push employees over the edge.”

Union negotiators also noted that the state government was flush with federal pandemic aid, arbitrators wrote.

In a Dec. 1 decision, arbitrators sided with teachers.

The panel noted that “there are no clearly right or wrong answers to these weighty and complicated issues.” But their thinking, they wrote, aligned with a neutral fact-finding report released in September that proposed a compromise between the two parties’ original positions. (The teachers union subsequently adopted those terms as its offer.)

It also echoed a 2019 decision, in which arbitrators also ruled in teachers’ favor after negotiators deadlocked over out-of-pocket costs.

In a statement issued after the decision, the school boards association warned of “ever increasing health care costs, which are relentlessly placing an ever greater financial burden on local school districts.”

“The arbitration decision amplified the notion that public educational employees continue to receive one of the most generous publicly funded health benefits packages in the state,” the association said in a statement.

But the teachers union bargaining team hailed the decision, calling it a victory over an “attempt to make health care more expensive and less accessible to the state’s educators, especially women and those who earn the least.”

Negotiators, they wrote, “came armed with facts, solid economic arguments, and a relentless focus on what’s really at stake: the health and well-being of the thousands of (union members) who dedicate (their) lives to Vermont’s children.”

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