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  • Writer's pictureMike Zilles

NTA EBulletin: January 1, 2024

Dear Colleagues: I usually avoid putting pictures of myself in these updates, but this is the only still photo I have of the press conference we held on December 18. And I just had to include a picture of members holding up NTA signs in room 111 of the Ed Center during our press conference. (Thanks to Dr. Nolin for offering us the use of the room for the conference....the rain that day was really heavy. That was a kind gesture in what has been an otherwise highly contentious contract campaign.) I think I have gotten a reputation of being a bearer of bad tidings--or at least that is what I hear. I am told that members appreciate my negotiations updates and how well informed I keep them, but the news, they say, is depressing. And I guess that's true: The news from the school committee and the mayor can be disheartening. Even maddening. Always baffling. These so-called leaders are so completely disconnected from reality that it disheartens, baffles, and maddens me--and I have tried to convey that to you each week over the course of these negotiations. But it's a new year, and I want to put this in perspective. What disheartens, baffles, and maddens me is not just that the school committee and mayor continue in their intransigence--though that is certainly disheartening, baffling, and maddening. No, what disheartens, baffles and maddens me most intensely is their gross overestimation of their own power and gross underestimation of ours. Our power as the educators of Newton, the people who work with children directly every day, and who have rightly earned the community's trust. And our union power. The growth of our power and resolution in the face of their intransigence heartens me, builds my confidence in the work we are doing together, and keeps me invigorated and moving forward. I hope it does the same for you! Why is it that our actions over the past year have not yet convinced the school committee and mayor, even now, that what they are doing just isn't going to work? Do they really still believe that just "spinning" things the "right way," with the public will get them the cheap contract and all of the givebacks they are looking for? Any sane school committee or mayor, in order to preserve what is left of their own self-respect, the respect of the educators who work in the schools, and community respect, would have recognized they cannot win this battle. I ask these questions because what I see is that they are losing this fight, and just don't know it. It's too bad they don't get it, and don't come to the table with something more reasonable, something that might allow us to settle a contract that doesn't result in winners and losers. But that's not happening. What I see is that we are winning this fight. It is a new year, and in this new year--cheers!--we will finish what we have started and win a new contract. That is the "resolution" that we must all make to each other as we go forward. Together, in solidarity, we will win! We have already shown this school committee and mayor our "resolution" to win this battle. Just look at all we have done to demonstrate that they cannot defeat us.

  • We have worn t-shirts on T-Shirt Tuesday and Wear it Wednesday for a year. (And don't forget to wear yours tomorrow or the day after!)

  • Last spring, the NTA provided the override campaign with its most visible and well-organized advocates. Without us, the loss would have been worse.

  • We canvassed at every single farmers market this summer, and we now have over 700 "Support Newton Educator" signs displayed across the city.

  • We have built a tremendous community support network through the Parent Educator Collaborative.

  • In late August, within a 24 hour window, we organized a complete boycott of this year's opening day ceremony.

  • Through the first four months of the year, we organized and sustained a modified work to rule campaign, which, I will add, can often be a divisive tactic for unions. We remain united and stronger for it.

  • In September, we beat the district's hired gun attorneys when the school committee filed a strike petition. The Commonwealth Employment Relations Board ruled that our modified work to rule action (silent meetings) was, in fact, a legal form of advocacy.

    • In winning, we established case law that will protect the "work to rule" rights of locals across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

    • In defending, and losing, their petition, the school committee spent $50,000 on its hired gun attorneys.

  • NTA members, community members, and students have advocated forcefully and eloquently for a fair contract during public comment at every school committee meeting this fall.

  • We have lined the halls for every school committee meeting.

  • We have filled the mediation room with silent observers at every session.

  • We held a march and rally attended by 1,200 members.

  • We delivered a petition signed by1,836 members demanding that the school committee and mayor bargain in good faith.

  • We sent a couple thousand postcards and a thousand emails to Mayor Fuller over the last three or four weeks of December.

  • We held multiple one on one conversations with all of our members to gauge the level of support and solidarity for our campaign.

  • We held General Membership Meetings in every building across the district. 90% of members participated. Of those who did, nearly every member voted no confidence in the school committee and Mayor Fuller.

This is an unprecedented show of solidarity and power. In any other district--anywhere but Newton--the school committee and the mayor would have cried uncle long ago. Actually, in many districts, the school committee comes to the table prepared (gasp!) to negotiate in good faith. We've all heard about the recent fights, and wins, in Andover and North Andover. But did you know that just this December 10, Stoughton ratified a Unit A contract that provides over 10% in COLAs over three years; immediately eliminates the bottom two steps of the salary schedule and moves anyone on those steps to step 3; establishes 60 days of paid parental leave; increases paid sick days; adds a third personal day; increases longevity payments; and reduces the time that members can be required to spend on duties? What have this school committee and mayor done? First, they announced, loudly, that they anticipate making us an offer they hoped we would not refuse, then they added little to what they had already offered. On December 17, the Mayor and Dr. Nolin sent out emails, respectively, to the larger Newton community and the Newton parent community, giving the impression that Mayor Fuller was adding significant funds to the budget that would allow for the school committee to make an offer that might settle the contract. In fact, neither email made mention of adding any funding to the operating budgets, out of which the district pays educators. So when, the next day, December 18, the mediator brought us the new school committee proposal, I was not surprised to see that their COLA proposal still remained grossly unrealistic (and still packaged with all their poison pill proposals, take it or leave it). I was, however, disheartened, baffled, and maddened. Second, they continued their disrespectful and implausible spin. In the school committee meeting that followed mediation, Tamika Olszewski opened by reassuring the public that the NTA vote of no confidence was merely a "normal part of negotiations." It is not "normal" for the employees of any large enterprise to vote nearly unanimously that they have no confidence in their leadership. Later in the meeting, during the school committee "negotiations update," Kathy Shields said that the school committee had made a generous increase to their COLA proposal, even as the NTA increased its COLA proposal, pushing the parties farther apart. The first part of her statement is patently false, but the second is true, but made out of context. The NTA increased its COLA proposal because we "unpackaged" it from our other proposals. If the school committee would like to grant us our other proposals, the COLA proposal will decrease proportionately. Third, they voted out their own school committee leadership, with no apparent change in how the school committee does its business. You might think that the fact that the school committee voted out its prior leadership and voted in Chris Brezski and Emily Prenner as the new chair and vice chair means that it has finally sunk in that the NTA is a force to be reckoned with, and that settling a fair contract is not just something to which to pay lip service. Think again. Brezski, in his inauguration day remarks today at City Hall, said he expects the Newton Public Schools, under his and Superintendent Nolin's leadership, to be an "outcomes driven organization," and that what he will be looking for in the year ahead is for everyone to "be productive." He said that, in the past, Newton has been able to thread the needle of being a city that, although much larger and less wealthy than many of its neighboring communities that provide an excellent education (read: Wellesley, Weston, Wayland, Lexington, Belmont, Brookline, Lincoln-Sudbury, Concord-Carlisle), still has been able to provide a comparable education to that provided in these smaller, wealthier districts. But now, in order to continue to thread that needle, it may be time for Newton to rethink how it does business. That's a lot of words, and I don't really know what they all mean in the context of educating children--except it sounds a lot like he means the NPS has to be very careful where it spends its limited resources, and have measures in place to determine if they are being spent wisely. All good. But given that Brezski didn't even pay lip service to settling a fair contract, I don't anticipate that means spending those limited resources on a fair contract. Sounds to me like we are going to get more of: "We already compensate our employees quite well. We don't need to spend our limited resources on that." I guess neither the school committee, under new leadership, nor the mayor, have yet seen how much of a force to be reckoned with we are. I'm not sure their new year will be happy. But I'm feeling it. Hope you are too. Happy new year! In solidarity,

Mike Zilles, President Newton Teachers Association


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