LET'S GET THIS DONE!
Opinion Piece by Mark Snyder
Andrea Pires, the President of the Stoughton Teachers Association, already brought out the big guns as she works hard to secure a contract for the teachers in the Stoughton School System. After only one negotiating session after the teacher’s contracts expired on August 31, 2013, (and a total of 11 previous to that) Pires sent out a news release trumpeting that “over half of the teachers in the school system who participated in a recent Stoughton Teachers’ Association online survey say that the unsettled teachers’ contract has caused them to consider seeking employment in another school district.” She also had a petition read at a number of school committee meetings by different teachers from every school. In addition, she held a “rally” before a school committee meeting, and even uttered the “S” word (“Strike”.) It DID succeed in getting interested parents involved in pressuring the School Committee to get things done. After the second meeting after the expiration of contracts, on December 11, got no new contract, and no change in the new steps that the school committee had unveiled, Pires told Snyder’s Stoughton, “The STA views the school committee’s proposal as a radical one that will set our schools and, ultimately, our community on a downward spiral from which we will not recover.”
Interestingly, many of the municipal side’s unions are banging their heads against a wall dealing with the town’s negotiating team, as well. Though many of the union’s negotiators are frustrated, they have not come out and publicly complained, or tried to negotiate in the media. Should they? Will it help? I’m not sure.
The STA did the same thing a few years ago, under the leadership of Sue Cogliano. They did the rally thing. They did the same reading of the petitions. Their president was slow to return calls from the press. What happened? They eventually settled for small increases in pay, and were told that the budget was quite tight and they were given all that could be afforded. Shortly thereafter, the Superintendent of Schools was given a $28,000 raise. We were told they feared she would seek employment elsewhere, but I think it was to keep up with the Town Manager at that time. In a year when teachers got very small raises, it was a slap in the face to the union, and the parents who had come to be involved in pressing for fair teacher’s salaries. It is still being talked about, and may become part of the upcoming election debate.
The School Committee negotiating team, Joyce Husseini and George Dolinsky, have offered a larger starting salary for new teachers (through higher Steps 1-3), but the increase in steps to the top of the pay scale may not keep these rookie teachers longer than three years.
Parents have hopped on board, and are backing the schools. This is natural. When my children were in the public schools, I became an activist at Town Meeting and on the Finance Committee. And, even if you don’t have children in the schools, having a strong school system does make the community more desirable. So, it’s in everybody’s interests to have the best possible school system.
School Committee member Dr. Erdem Ural wrote to Snyder’s Stoughton, “I have received countless postcards and emails from Stoughton residents. I too am unhappy that the teacher contract negotiations are still not concluded. I believe teachers are the most valuable asset of our school district. They deserve a contract, and they deserve a competitive pay schedule that will allow us to retain and continue to attract excellent teachers. It is amazing that almost diametrically opposed recollections are emerging from the two negotiation teams. Perhaps, something is getting lost in the translation. Unfortunately, distrust appears to be a significant factor as well. I believe the most productive path forward would be to have the full school committee present at the next negotiation meeting. The focus of this meeting should be for both sides to listen to the position of the other side respectfully and with an open mind. There should be no more arguing about who is to blame for why the contract is still not settled. Some reconstitution of the negotiation teams might also be beneficial."
Pires said that "the STA has invited the full school committee to attend a bargaining session. We are still awaiting a response from the school committee and hope that they voted in executive session to attend our next bargaining session." But Husseini has rejected the offer, telling me, "the School Committee will not be meeting with the union negotiating team. This is a tactic by them to control the Committee. The School Committee negotiating team brings back all proposals and offers, and discusses them at length with the full Committee in executive session."
Giving the teachers, the firefighters, the police, the DPW, and every other union and non-union worker in this town a fair wage and the security of a contract should be a priority. It shouldn’t drag. In the past, I remember contracts that were literally years late, and we were forced to come up with back pay to reinforce past raises. It was irresponsible. The municipal government negotiators and the municipal union heads should lock themselves in a room, and not come out without a signed contract. Same for the schools...Let the STA negotiating team and the Superintendent of Schools and the School Committee reps lock themselves in a room (hopefully not in Building A at SHS), and not come out until it’s done. I don’t care if they are there all night, or all weekend--and have to call out for coffee and donuts, or more pizza. JUST GET IT DONE.
I can see why parents are so alarmed. When it’s said that their favorite teachers may leave the system for greener pastures, their concern is understood. In fact, a Facebook page called “Families for Stoughton Schools” was born. And, very quickly it amassed over 400 “friends.” So, the interest is there in support of the teachers of the Stoughton Public Schools.
One of the activists, Hollie Tiso, wrote, “ I am a very concerned parent of four elementary school children who is worried about the future of the Stoughton School system. I know that the teachers are not happy with the offer that is being presented to them. I fear that if a deal is not reached that is fair to our teachers that more of our wonderful and highly experienced teachers will leave. My children personally have had so many wonderful, caring and highly experienced teachers at their school and I have heard nothing but the best of things about Stoughton teachers going all the way up to the high school. Sadly, a large number of teachers left for various reasons last year and more are following in the same path this year. This is very concerning for the parents of this town. Why did so many teachers leave last year? What do other towns have that we don't have that make our teachers want to teach there instead? Our children deserve the best and the best is already here, teaching them five days a week in their schools. The families of Stoughton are joining together to give our children what they deserve and what they deserve are great schools with the same wonderful teachers that they already have. We are all worried about the way our schools are headed and so many of us are feeling discouraged with the way most of the present school committee members, along with the Superintendent, are handing this issue, along with many other issues. We will not fail our children and we will continue fighting for them to receive the education that they deserve.”
Another Facebook activist, Marlene Silva, wrote, “As a parent with a child with special needs, I have a lot vested in the Stoughton School System. Prior to his starting at the Edwin A. Jones Preschool, I would have never have thought my son would be where he is today. They took a little boy with few words, very little eye contact, and limited social skills and have molded him into the happy, thriving, social boy he is today. It has been a long road. From the beginning, when he would attend a school concert with his ears covered and his back turned, a teacher next to him would console him, making me feel less embarrassed that I had a child who was different. One thing that most special needs parents have is fear-- fear of the unknown and fear of not doing what is best for their child. The day he walked into kindergarten and I met his teacher, I was able to put aside that fear. When his medical condition began to deteriorate and he needed a feeding tube, his nurse was there supporting me and assuring me that no matter what he would be taken care of while he was in school. She never waivered, or had second thoughts. Fast forward and my child is now in third grade. The team that has formed to ensure he succeeds is phenomenal. They each have fought for him, laughed with him and cried with me. In my heart I know that I have to thank each and everyone of them for his success.”
Silva continues, “Teachers not having a contract affects my family so much, and for the first time my fears have returned. Fears that highly skilled people that work with my son on a daily basis, are not guaranteed their futures, which jeopardizes my son’s future. Why would we consider making the Stoughton School Systems a place that a new teachers will flock to due to a new pay scale, but then in turn we have nothing to ensure they stay. Why would we look for changes when what we have now works perfectly? My son thrives on consistency. Some of his therapists have worked with him since preschool and the others he has had all four years at the Gibbons School. Each teacher for him I know is carefully planned for to make a perfect match. How long can we continue to have teachers leaving us before we have a school that fails? I can only hope that the school committee will look at the future of our town and work towards a contract that will be fair, a contract that will attract and keep these professional that our children need to succeed.”
Arthur Slate, former Chairman of the Stoughton Housing Authority, had a different take. He simply didn’t believe the STA’s story about teacher’s considering leaving. He wrote, “There is one big problem with this story. A postscript is that there are not many teaching jobs available, anywhere. Where do these teachers think they are going? They all should be grateful that they have the opportunity to work with our youth. Many graduates are struggling to find teaching and other employment.”
School Committee candidate "Katie" Pina-Enokian said, "I believe that our teachers deserve as much as we can afford to give them. They
spend a lot of time and effort on our children. It is scary to think of the consequence if this doesn't get resolved soon. Happy teachers, happy children!"
From her point of view, School Committee Chair Joyce Husseini wrote, “There is no doubt that the teachers feel that the unsettled contract has a negative effect on morale, but the Union bargaining team needs to take ownership of the delay and acknowledge their responsibility for the negative morale. In a letter distributed to Stoughton residents, the STA claims that over 80% of the salary cells would be slashed. They fail to represent that no teacher will have their salary reduced. In fact, every effort has been made to insure that everyone will receive an increase, including teachers already at the top step of the old system. These ‘top Step’ teachers would be guaranteed additional money under the new salary system. With average steps just under 5%, and the increase of 2.75% asked for by the union, most of the teachers would receive an increase of over 7%. If we had unlimited resources, we could continue with those kind of raises. Other towns have drastically restructured their step scales. Arlington went to 30 steps, with a 1% increase between steps. Canton amended their step system to an average of 3%, and gave the option of either a lane change or a step, not both. We are not offering anything nearly as drastic as this. The current School Committee offer is what the School Committee is asking the STA to work from to help achieve the following reasonable goals: Fair compensation for our qualified and professional staff; predictable and sustainable step increases; and a salary structure that will ensure that the District will attract and retain talented young teachers.”
STA President Andrea Pires, who is a fifth grade teacher in her seventh year at the South School, told me Tuesday night that the teachers are simply looking for a modest increase for the cost of living, and the same amount of steps (14) to the top salary position as they have in their expired contract. “The school committee started with 39 steps. Then, they came in with 27. Now, it’s 19. So, instead of 14 years, a new teacher would have to work 19 years to get to the top salary. In Milton, they can do that in 12 years. So, by increasing the first three steps, they will recruit those without experience, train them, and see them leave after those initial years, when they’d be more experienced and would be able to look elsewhere. When they say that ‘everyone would receive an increase’ I’m not sure how they get to that. In my case, I’d lose close to $10,000 in the next three years under their new matrix.” Pires says that teachers have made plans for their futures, planning on anticipated earnings. “When you get little or no increase, it hurts,” she said.
As far as charges by the School Committee that the teachers are invoking a “Work to Rule”, Pires disagrees. “Our teachers are still coming in early and leaving late. They are still providing extra help to students, and writing recommendation letters. But, we are not volunteering for after school activities.” As for the mention of the word “strike”, Pires added, “We don’t have plans to strike. The dysfunction in the schools caused us to be asked about it. We’re hoping it doesn’t come to that point.”
Husseini sent this warning (in bold print) for the STA: "If what the union wants is to negotiate in public, they need to amend the ground rules to do so. Otherwise, what amounts to public negotiating MUST STOP." But, Husseini added, "Mr. Dolinsky and I and the other members of the negotiating team are more than willing to negotiate around the clock to get this done. It was done during the last negotiation and we would do it again." Pires says her team is also willing to negotiate as long as it takes to get it done.
The 4000 or so students in the Town of Stoughton are the ones who will bear the brunt of this discontent. So, I would politely tell the STA & the SSC to look at how much funding is available, stay within the bounds of that funding, and work out a compromise that keeps teacher’s morale high, and makes the School Committee feel they did their fiduciary responsibilities. It’s time to get this thing done!
I know there are intelligent, reasonable people on both sides of this equation. Hopefully, they will come to a reasonable agreement, sooner than later.
(Posted on December 17, 2013 @ 10:30 p.m. Updated on December 18, 2013 at 9 a.m.)
(From Stoughton Journal, Friday, December 20, 2013)
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