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  • Writer's pictureMike Zilles

NTA EBulletin: February 19, 2024

Dear Colleagues,

As we reach the one month mark since taking our historic vote to go on strike, we are sending reminders of why we took this step, what we fought for, and what we gained as a result.  

Boston Globe, February 16, 2024

This contract could have been — and should have been — settled without a strike. But it seemed more important to the mayor and the School Committee to hold firm on budget parameters and punitive working conditions that would never be suitable to settle a fair contract.

By Michael Zilles and Ryan Normandin

Policy makers, pundits, and some Newton residents can certainly disagree with the Newton Teachers Association’s decision to go on strike last month. But after 16 months of negotiations, during which the Newton School Committee did not meaningfully engage in the negotiations process, 98 percent of our membership felt they had no other choice. Without this act of civil disobedience, we could not have won the transformational contract that we settled.

Empty rhetoric does not inspire 98 percent of a 2,000-member organization to take the drastic step of going on strike nor convince a similar number of educators to end the strike. Our members drove these decisions because they recognize when management has no interest in bargaining in good faith and when a contract meets their needs and their students’ needs.

Negative commentary about the NTA has been fixated on the cost-of-living adjustments in the contract that ended the strike, comparing them to the COLAs offered by the Newton School Committee in December, noting an apparent similarity and claiming the strike was fought for naught.

The COLAs the School Committee offered were much lower than those we won through the strike (8 percent over three years versus 12 percent over four for most educators; 7.5 percent over three years versus 14 percent to 16 percent over four years for paraprofessionals). Though this contract does not fully address the earning power Newton educators have lost to inflation, it goes much further than did the School Committee’s December proposal.And that December proposal did not exist in a vacuum. The School Committee made its COLA offer contingent upon our accepting increases to health insurance costs, adding unpaid work days to the school year, relinquishing control over planning time, and abandoning nearly all of our most important proposals: a humane and modern parental leave policy; a social worker in every building; and a living wage for paraprofessionals.

The members of the NTA overwhelmingly ratified the contract not only because it offered pay adjustments that far outpaced those the School Committee had previously offered but also because this contract will dramatically improve the working and learning conditions in Newton’s schools.

Before this contract, in order to get students safely on and off buses, the district relied on volunteers, which is no way to ensure student safety. Now students will be guaranteed supervision as the contract makes common-sense adjustments to paraprofessionals’ schedules and compensates them for their time.

This contract also protects prep time and limits tasks that take away educators and staff from directly working with students — huge and valuable wins. Securing paid family leave that didn’t come at the expense of significant increases in other health care costs was a big victory. The excellent parental leave language we won will benefit current members and also help Newton attract early-career educators who want to start families. Protecting class sizes and getting a commitment to increasing the number of social workers in our schools over the life of the contract will also make our schools better.

We challenge the notion that Newton is generous when it comes to school funding. The city’s tax revenues have been trending upward by roughly 4.75 percent every year for the past six years, while the school budget has increased by an average of only 3.5 percent annually, leading to multimillion dollar budget surpluses for the city and multimillion dollar funding gaps for the school district in the spring of 2022 and 2023.

In spring 2022, for the approved fiscal 2023 school budget, there were nearly $4 million in cuts to school staff and programs, while the city simultaneously maintained a nearly $29 million budget surplus, some of which could have been used on school spending.

In spring 2023, in the approved fiscal 2024 school budget, there were again nearly $4 million in school-related cuts; the city once again had a nearly $29 million surplus.

In addition to last year’s surplus, Newton has resolved a longstanding dispute over tax assessments with Eversource, which resulted in $26 million in unrestricted funds being added to the budget surplus available this year, raising the total to $55 million, and it also made Eversource’s annual $3.5 million in tax payments available to the city as ongoing revenue.

At the bargaining table, the School Committee’s insistence that it had no more money was consistently undermined. In the last week of the strike alone, there were at least four instances in which Mayor Ruthanne Fuller granted additional funds to the School Committee, though the amount the mayor provided remained consistently less than what she had available. But from the beginning of negotiations, the School Committee insisted that any funding used to settle our contract would result in cuts to staff. What was actually lacking was not funding but a willingness to invest available funds in NTA contracts.

This contract could have been — and should have been — settled without a strike. But it seemed more important to Fuller and the School Committee to hold firm on budget parameters and punitive working conditions that would never be suitable to settle a fair contract.

In spite of the theatrical quality of the School Committee’s and mayor’s calls for austerity, Newton educators compromised to reach a tentative agreement, reducing our financial proposals to achieve a smaller impact on overall city spending.

Contrast our approach to that of the School Committee’s bargaining team. From October 2022 until the point of settlement, the School Committee team and Liz Valerio — the lawyer who was hired to lead its negotiations but who doesn’t have to live with the consequences of what a hostile contract campaign does for a school district — engaged in a series of maneuvers purposefully designed to scuttle negotiations. These maneuvers included introducing take-it-or-leave package proposals loaded with poison pills or trying to force us into impasse to end negotiations and impose their “last best offer.”

Even when Newton’s students were out of their classrooms during the first week of the strike, the School Committee refused to bargain with any sense of urgency. At the end of that week, the courts acknowledged as much — that the committee bargaining team and its lawyer were perhaps weaponizing the fines the NTA was incurring each day it remained out on strike in order to hold out, and Middlesex Superior Court Judge Christopher Barry-Smith lowered the fines. At the end of the strike’s second week the judge attached a possible increase in fines to a mechanism allowing the NTA to challenge the School Committee’s commitment to good-faith bargaining. The contract was settled within hours.

The teaching profession is in crisis nationwide. Yet much of what needs to change to revitalize our profession does not happen in Washington, D.C., or on Beacon Hill. Real change begins at the local level with adequately funded school budgets. It begins when a city like Newton, with its extraordinary resources, recognizes its responsibility to be a local, state, and national leader. Our strike put a spotlight on the responsibility school districts have not only to their students but also to playing a leadership role in educating all students.

Critics of the strike reveal their ignorance for what teachers in Newton, throughout Massachusetts, and across the country are really fighting for: respect for their profession and the resources for the learning conditions that their students deserve.

Newton educators will remain vigilant. We hope that by the time we once again return to the bargaining table, we will be working with a mayor and School Committee truly interested in fully funding schools, acknowledging Newton educators’ professional contributions to those schools, and providing students with what they deserve.

Newton educators are justifiably proud that we took the leadership role we did. We stood up for the schools Newton and communities across our state and nation deserve. And we are grateful that, in spite of the disruption the strike caused, the Newton community stood with us.

Michael Zilles is president of the Newton Teachers Association, currently on leave from his position as a world language and English teacher at Newton North High School. Ryan Normandin is a member of the Newton Teachers Association Bargaining Team and a math and physics teacher at Newton South High School.


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