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  • Writer's pictureMike Zilles

NTA EBulletin January 31, 2021

Dear Colleagues: I want to address a number of things in this email, but the underlying theme will be morale--both within our membership, and also the loss of morale that comes from the animosity that is too much a part now of the relationship between the NTA and the NPS. I know many of you feel dispirited and demoralized by the seemingly endless amount of work you are doing, day after day, weekend after weekend, and by the cumulative impact of the stress and anxiety of worrying, day after day, about whether you will be exposed to COVID, become ill, or worst of all, bring COVID home to your families. As I hear from so many of you—we are all in survival mode. I hope it helps to know that, through your support and advocacy, together, as a union, we have made our workplaces safer. Together we sent over 700 emails to the superintendent, the school committee, and the mayor, urging them to implement surveillance testing. And they responded: last Wednesday, David sent an email informing us that, beginning next week, the district would make available weekly surveillance testing. And the final “ventilation dashboards” were posted to the website this week. Because of our vigilance, and our advocacy, we are safer. The NTA leadership will continue to remain vigilant, and we will continue to provide avenues for you to advocate. There are also other reasons to feel safer. Many NTA members, because they hold licenses as health care providers—social workers, psychologists, BCBAs and related service providers--are eligible for vaccination in phase one. I have heard reports from many Behavior Therapists who have also been vaccinated or scheduled appointments to be vaccinated, eligible because they work under BCBAs. We can feel thrilled for them—even as we feel frustration that educators in general have not yet become eligible for the vaccine. So many of these members work in close contact with our most vulnerable students, facing a high risk of exposure. Thank goodness they are now safer. Each time one of our members is vaccinated, that is one more path SARS-CoV-2 cannot follow, and whenever the virus is stopped from spreading, we are all safer. But we must continue to be wary, for even as we hope that the vaccine will soon become available to educators, public health experts tell us that we are heading into the most dangerous period of the pandemic. So we have to be very careful that our hope that we will soon be vaccinated does not tempt us to let down our guards and become less careful. It might be tempting, for example, to not take advantage of the surveillance testing the district is offering. We have fought hard for this benefit, and the district has worked hard to implement it. If you work on a team of a number of educators with whom you have contact every day, when all of you get tested every week, you make not only yourselves safer; you make each other safer. We are in a better, safer, place with surveillance testing than without, with improved ventilation than without. And we must acknowledge: The district has put those improved safeguards in place. So a question I would like to pose is: Can the NTA and the NPS move forward from this place and leave behind some of the animosity that got us here? Is that possible? I mention above David’s email to staff in which he communicates that the district will implement weekly testing beginning next week. I find both the tone and the substance of the email concerning, and I feel I would be remiss if I did not these concerns. But in the spirit of moving forward, I would like to address those concerns in a manner that is itself less adversarial than I have used in the past. In his email, when David informs us that surveillance testing will become available starting next week, he first says: “We continue to be one of the very few districts in the Commonwealth operating its own COVID testing program. This has been a significant undertaking and we are proud of the operation we have put in place. We are also committed to enhancing and expanding testing in our district.” I think the members of his staff who put this program together should feel proud of the work they have done. But it is painful that David felt the need to state that Newton’s is one of the few surveillance testing programs in the Commonwealth. It would have gone a long way if he had chosen instead to say something like this: I know that, as members of the NTA, you have a lobbied the district all year to implement surveillance testing—including the many emails we most recently received from you. Thank you for these efforts. We have heard you. I truly wish we could have put surveillance testing in place sooner, and I do apologize to you that we, as a district, did not do that. And I own my part in this. I will own my/the NTA's in this: It is certainly much more difficult for David to write in a way that takes us into his confidence, speaking from a place of transparency, openness, and vulnerability, when he has to worry that he may be met by the union as an adversary no matter what he says. And he may feel that the district is getting no credit for the work they are doing, and he feels protective of those with whom he works directly. But can we get to a place where it is possible for David to say?: Beginning next week, we will make testing available on a weekly basis for all staff. Moreover, you have my commitment to enhance the program in place, expand it to reach students as soon as possible, and work with the NTA as a valued partner to do this in the most effective way possible. We are all headed for a difficult stretch in this pandemic, and we know we must partner to do all we can to keep us all--staff and students--safer. Yet David also makes it hard for the NTA not to meet him as an adversary when he communicates about a matter as mundane as the 2021-2022 school year calendar in a way that is divisive, particularly when he says one thing to us, and another to the parent community. To us, his colleagues, he says the following regarding the 2021-2022 school year calendar: With a late Labor Day and an early Rosh Hashanah, school will begin on Thursday, September 9 next year. This means that the last day for faculty will be June 23 with no snow days and June 30 with 5 snow days. As a result, we ask that you not make any summer commitments prior to July 1, 2022. I know this may be a hardship for some of you and we are sorry that we are not able to start the school year earlier. We did communicate to David that we polled our members about the late start and end dates in 2020 and 2021, and that 60% of them said they wanted the start day as it is contractually. So he really only addresses his apology to those who would prefer that the school year begin earlier. This just seems like an attempt to divide some of our members from others in the union, and from the leadership. To the parent community he communicates his point very differently: On Monday night, the School Committee reviewed the calendar for the 2021-22 school year. The calendar shows a late start date and a late end date for our school year next year. Newton is one of the few districts in which the first day of school is written into the teachers contract and therefore, any changes must be bargained. In our case, the first day of school for students is the day after Labor Day. However, this year, the day after Labor Day is the first day of Rosh Hashanah, a day in which school is not in session. “The NTA declined our request to make a one time exception to this provision and start the school year prior to Labor Day. As a result, the first day of school for the 2020-21 school year will be Thursday, September 9. This start date will also avoid starting school on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, which we know is observed by some of our staff and families. This means the last day for students will be June 22 with no snow days and June 29 with 5 snow days.” First, it is important to put next year in historical perspective. In 2015-2016, Labor Day fell on September 7th, the last day for students fell on June 28th, and the last day for educators on June 29th (with five snow days). That year, there was one day of observance for Rosh Hashanah and one day of observance for Yom Kippur. In 2021-2022, Labor Day falls on September 6th, the last day for students will fall on June 29th, and the last day for educators on June 30th (with five snow days). This year there will be two days of observance for Rosh Hashanah and one day of observance for Yom Kippur. In the spring of 2015, I recall no email that David sent out to staff in January “apologizing” for the late end date of school for the following year, nor directing them to not make plans before July 1 for the following summer. Nor do I recall an email to parents (and I was an NPS parent then) letting them know that, because the district’s contract with the NTA, their children would be finishing school very late in June. If I am being honest, this felt mean spirited. But, on the other hand, I must own that the NTA did vote no confidence in David’s leadership. We have filed numerous complaints with the Department of Labor Relations. I have sent critical emails calling out David's misrepresentations, which is just a more genteel way of saying lies. And when 60% of our members who voted to not change the start date of next year’s calendar, many did so, with my encouragement, at least in part, out of exasperation and frustration with the district for even asking for this change, coming, as the request did, just after the School Committee voted down a Tentative Agreement our members had just ratified… David has reason to feel rankled, and for wanting to go on the offensive. So we—WE—NTA and the NPS—are in a bad place, and things need to get better. In the spirit of moving forward—as a way of taking a different tack in our relationship—I will suggest an alternative path that David might have taken in those emails—one that would have truly been written in a tone and manner that “takes us into his confidence,” addressing us as equals, as “dear colleagues,” and not merely as employees. And I will do so not to criticize, but to provide an example by which we could hear his words differently going forward---as a template, or model, if you will, of what we need from him as a communicator and leader. “Dear colleagues, Below please find an email that I shared with parents concerning the 2021-2022 calendar: “Dear NPS Families: On Monday night, the School Committee reviewed the calendar for the 2021-22 school year. The calendar shows a late start date and a late end date for our school year next year. I and the members of the School Committee have heard from many of you that you would have preferred to begin and end the year earlier. I apologize to you that we have not made that happen. Here is why. “We reached out to the NTA to request an exception to a provision in our collective bargaining agreements that requires students to return for the first day of school after Labor Day. The NTA polled their members, who decided against granting this exception. Of course, inevitably, any decision we make will disappoint some, both among NPS families, and NPS staff. But upon reflection, I respect the NTA’s reasoning: (1)They were worried that an exception this year could quite likely become an expectation in years to come—and they did not want to make such a change outside the normal channels for collective bargaining during a contract negotiation, when it could be given due consideration. (2) They were also concerned about returning to school before Labor Day after such a difficult school year this year. Preparing for the return of children in the fall of 2021 is going to take much more time and effort than it would in an ordinary year, as classrooms have all been reconfigured to allow for social distancing, and must be reconfigured again for a full return of students--including returning furniture to the buildings that we have put in storage. (3) Many shared that their own children, like your children, have full summer schedules, and that the last weeks in August are often the only weeks in which they can schedule a summer family vacation, something that I am sure you can appreciate is so important this year. (4) Finally, many of our special education staff will be working long hours this coming summer so that we as a district can begin to redress the harm and pain this pandemic has caused for special education students and their families. These educators, perhaps more than anyone, will need a real break before the next school year begins. In short, I want to acknowledge how much the fabulous educators of the Newton Public Schools are sacrificing this year, and do so by respecting, indeed honoring, their decision. I ask you to join me in doing so as well.” We want to work with the NPS to carve a path back to normalcy, to do more than just survive this painful year, and set a tone for NTA and NPS leadership to move forward. We hope that when this terrible year is over, so too we can leave behind its animosity and pervasive distrust. We can be better. But as leaders of the NTA, our promise to you, our members, is that we will find a path to a better relationship with the district that does not come at the cost of our honesty and transparency with you, nor our willingness to advocate fiercely on your behalf when that is the only path available.

"Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose." Please take care and stay well. Mike



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