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  • Writer's pictureMike Zilles

NTA EBulletin: January 17, 2024: Forum at Zervas Elementary

Open Letter to Chris Brezski, Dr. Anna Nolin, Members of the Newton PTO School Council, SEPAC and METCO:


"We can't even agree on the facts." Chris Brezski, stated at last night's forum for Newton Public Schools civic leaders from the PTO School Council, SEPAC, and METCO.


So Chris and Anna, what I propose here is to discuss a few facts in the hopes that we can agree on their pertinence to our negotiations. 


Sometimes, Chris, frankly, it doesn't seem to me that we disagree on the facts; you simply may not know the facts, because you haven't dug in deeply enough to get to them. How can we agree on the facts if you don't even know them? You are, to use your own words, still making "rookie mistakes."


Here is an example. You developed a table to compare the salaries of educators in Newton on different steps of the pay scale to the salaries of educators in a group of educationally comparable benchmarking districts, and you concluded that Newton is in fact "competitive."


There is a fact that is quite pertinent that you did not mention or account for in your calculations, and I think that is likely because you just don't know this fact.


Over the course of the last four contractual years, Newton dropped the bottom two steps on the Unit A salary scheduled, and then renumbered the remaining steps. Former step 3 became step 1, former step 4 became step 2, former step 5 became step 3, and so on until former step 16 became step 14. The NTA and the NPS agreed to this in order to make starting salaries more competitive, because Newton had fallen behind its educationally comparable benchmarking districts with regards to starting salaries. 


This was a successful strategy, but within limits. While it did increase starting salaries for new hires, it did not increase salaries for any employees who were already working for Newton at the time this agreement was reached. It's that last fact especially that's not accurately represented in your table of comparisons. 


That's because almost every employee who is currently on step 7 has actually worked in Newton or another public school district for nine years, not seven. That means that in any of Newton's comparable districts, an employee with nine years of experience would be on step 9, not step 7. But in Newton they are on step 7.  So in making the comparison of the salary at the MA step 7 in Newton to the comparable salaries in peer districts, you really should have compared Newton's step 7 salary to the step 9 salaries in other districts. 


There are more facts that you do not accurately represent. One appears in the first graph you shared, where you show the timeline of the respective NTA and NPS COLA proposals. Your graph shows how far apart the parties were on COLAs when we began negotiations, how our respective proposals began to grow closer sometime in the late fall, and then diverged when the NTA increased our COLA proposal in December. However:


1. The school committee refused to put a COLA proposal on the table until mid April of 2023. Your graph indicates that you put your first offer on the table almost immediately after we made our first proposal in November of 22. The NTA has a charge pending a decision with the Department of Labor alleging that the Newton School Committee has not bargained in good faith, and part of that charge is that the district refused to counter our COLA proposal until over half a year into negotiations. So from our perspective, this inaccuracy masks five months of bad faith bargaining. 


2. Your graph indicates that our COLA proposal went up significantly in December of 2023. At that time, we told the school committee that we would no longer present nor bargain all or nothing "package" proposals. Since our COLA proposal no longer came packaged with our parental leave policy, our proposal to increase Unit C hours, our proposal for a regular education social worker in every school, etc., we increased the COLA proposal to reflect that it was a stand alone proposal. 


But the school committee proposal on COLAs remains tied to the NTA's acceptance of the rest of your package, which easily has a value equal to about a 2 or 3 percent increase in the COLA. So if the school committee's COLA offer were "unpackaged," from these other proposals, it would be only approximately 5 or 6 percent. Factoring this in, the school committee has not really increased its COLA offer at all since you first put it on the table in April. You just packaged it differently. If your graph were a realistic representation of the trajectory of our respective COLA proposals it would present a nearly flat school committee trajectory. 


3. A third major factual inaccuracy is in the table that shows where Newton salaries will land relative to those in comparable districts in 2026. Chris, you use the NTA's packaged COLA proposal from October and the school committee's most recent packaged COLA proposal for the calculations you perform to create your table of comparisons.


I suggest, to compare what's on the table right now from both parties, we should only look at the unvarnished, unpackaged value of the COLAs both parties have on the table--a high estimate of 6% for the school committee and 13% for the NTA--and then use those numbers to do the calculations that lie behind that table. Doesn't it make more sense, factually, to compare apples to apples?


Below you see two tables. The first indicates where Newton salaries stood in FY22 relative to salaries in its comparable districts. A key observation: In FY22, the longer you had already worked in Newton, the lower your earnings were relative to the earnings of your peers in educationally comparable districts. 


FY 22


Chris, in the second table below, I have made a number of changes to your original table, in order to reflect my disagreement with you on what facts are relevant:


1. Weston's salaries are adjusted, because you transcribed them wrong from their salary schedules.

2. I compared Newton's MA step 7 salary to other districts' MA step 9 salaries to reflect the renumbering of Newton's salary schedules after two steps were dropped from the bottom.

3. The salaries that would result from the NTA and NPS COLA proposals are adjusted to make them "package independent" and current.


FY 26


As I just said, in FY22 the longer an employee worked in Newton, the lower their salary would be relative to their peers in comparable districts. The SC proposal, by FY26, would exacerbate that problem considerably, making Newton a considerably less desirable place to make one's career.


The NTA proposal completely corrects this problem. Maybe you don't think Newton needs to be that competitive, we don't need to be "at the top" Maybe not. But I think you would agree that we also don't want to be at the bottom, and we don't want employee's who work for Newton to feel resentful or demoralized because they know their peers in comparable districts are earning much more.


To me, this means we have some negotiating to do. But for that to happen, the school committee cannot continue to not budge on its financial offer. That is what your team has done for 15 months now.


Please don't go to community leaders and say--"Hey, we offered to meet this week." We've been meeting with you for over a year now and nothing has changed on that front. And for all your attestations to the contrary, your bargaining teams strategy seems to be to bargain to impasse and impose its last best offer. Your team remains rigidly determined to win a cheap contract no matter what the long term costs of this are to the district. More on this below.


There are many more areas in your presentation, Chris and Anna, where I could call into question whether you are considering the relevant facts, but obviously I can't go into them all. But there is one more very important fact I would like to draw your attention to Dr. Nolin. 


Late in your presentation, Dr. Nolin, you stated that you thought that the NTA was not open to considering incremental change--that not everything was possible all at once--and you used parental leave as your example. The NTA is proposing parental leave of 60 days paid, some days paid directly by the district, some paid using members accrued sick leave time, some paid from days from the sick leave bank. In fact--and Dr. Nolin, this is a fact, and there really is no disputing it--the NTA has twice tried to bargain with the district on a compromise agreement on precisely this proposal!


Initially, in June, we proposed to accept a modified version of one of the school committee's proposals on limiting sick bank access if the school committee would agree to our proposal on parental leave. The school committee at that time shut down these discussions right when we were near making progress by petitioning for impasse mediation through the DLR. We never got a direct response to our proposed compromise, nor any indication that you were willing to take the issue up again and negotiate it to a tentative agreement. 


Then, just last Monday in our mediation session, we made another counter-offer/proposal on parental leave, again in the hopes of opening up a channel of negotiation on this issue. We proposed to phase in the number of days the district paid directly over a four year period. This seems pretty clearly to be in the spirit of the type of negotiations you said you would like to see. Why on Monday the 8th of January did the school committee not respond immediately to that opening? We were very clear that we wanted the more genuine, good faith form of negotiations you stated last night that you were hoping for. Your team did not reciprocate. 


But to both of you, I need to say, the real issue is not just that we don't agree on the same facts. The real issue is that you continue to look for a cheap contract from us in order to solve your primary problem: Mayor Fuller has chronically underfunded the schools.


Both of you, in different ways, spoke last night of the chronic underfunding of the schools. Both of you acknowledged that educators are working harder now than they ever have. 


Yet, at the bargaining table, and in your public representation of our negotiations, you continue to expect the members of the NTA to pick up the tab for what the Mayor won't pay.


We will not. We cannot. It is wrong to ask that of us. It is outrageous to set that as the condition for bargaining with us. That's a fact you MUST reckon with.


Thank you for your time and attention. 


Mike


Mike Zilles, President

Newton Teachers Association


 

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