Leb. teachers seek civil union benefits
The Lebanon School Board has agreed to consider amending their professional agreement with teachers to include health care coverage for partners in same-sex civil unions, just as the College has since 1997 and the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center plans to do in 2003.
The board voted Nov. 20 to open negotiations with the Lebanon Education Association, the union representing teachers in the Lebanon school district. However, both board and union members stressed that an agreement has not yet been reached.
The school board's decision to negotiate came as a surprise to members of the teacher's union, who had believed that board officials would be willing to merely alter the professional agreement, Lebanon Education Association president Cathy Lacombe said.
"I was hoping that it would be as simple as reopening the contract and inserting 'civil unions' after 'marriages,'" she said.
According to Superintendent Mike Harris, however, health care coverage for couples is substantially more expensive than coverage for single teachers.
"To go from covering one person [to covering two] is the difference between $2,000 and $8,000," Harris said.
Members of the school board and district administrative staff were uncertain as to which aspects of the teacher contract they would like altered in exchange for same-sex union clauses. The office of the superintendent will likely examine the contract in the coming weeks.
"We don't even know whether there's anything out there that we could reconsider," school board Chair Mary Jane Thibodeau said. "There might be something to our benefit that we might like to talk about."
In response to the school board and superintendent, union officials expressed doubt that many teachers would apply for coverage under a same-sex union provision. Teachers also framed the issue as one of morality and civil rights.
"It's the correct and just thing to do," Lacombe said, "and we didn't expect to have to bargain to do the right thing."
Same-sex unions are legal in Vermont under a set of provisions that were enacted in 2000. Homosexual couples are not required to be Vermont residents to join in a same-sex union, legally termed a 'civil union.' Though such unions provide essentially the same state-sponsored benefits and liabilities as marriage in Vermont, their legal status in New Hampshire is less clear.
While Vermont institutions are legally obligated to extend comparable health insurance benefits to both civil unions and heterosexual marriages, most New Hampshire school districts do not extend coverage to same-sex unions. Those districts that do cover civil unions have added explicit provisions to their teacher employment contracts.
"Four school districts in New Hampshire have this provision out of about 150 school districts," Harris said.
In the Lebanon school district, health insurance is currently the only area in which there is a disparity between the benefits accorded to married couples and those accorded to members of same-sex unions.
Leave provisions, including those for partner illness or death, are already covered by the current contract for those engaged in civil unions, according to Harris.
"There's a bereavement clause and the contract lists significant others in that section," he said.
Amendments to the employment contract between teachers and the Lebanon school district are very rare. Most issues are settled in the bargaining that occurs before the renewal of a professional agreement.
The employment contract between teachers and the school district is renewed every three years, typically after bargaining about salary and benefits. The two organizations signed the current contract last year, so the union would have to wait another two years to amend it in routine negotiations.
"This is the first time in my tenure that we've considered opening a contract when we're in the middle of a contract," said Robert Moses, a school board member and Chair of the Personnel/Negotiations Committee.
The Lebanon Education Association represents teachers working in the seven schools in the Lebanon School District. District officials estimate that the schools employ 230 teachers; of these, 210 are members of the teacher's union.
The teacher's union hopes to further extend health benefits in the future to cover any domestic joining, heterosexual or homosexual. "We forsee negotiating similar benefits for all domestic partners," said Lacombe, "but we weren't able to quickly agree on what domestic partners would mean."