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  • Writer's pictureMike Zilles

NTA EBulletin: October 29

Dear Colleagues, In an email after our rally, I asked: "Will this move the needle?", answered: "maybe" and promised to analyze Dr. Nolin's and the school committee's lengthy negotiations update. Since then the NTA and the NPS negotiations teams had one more mediation session. On Thursday, Mayor Fuller sent out her own negotiations update to the Newton Community, linking to the slides Dr. Nolin created for the school committee update. So--lots to write about in this update. I try to address most of the arguments Fuller, Dr. Nolin and company make in their updates. If members of the community ask you about any of these points, I hope this analysis helps you answer those questions. First though, an.....

Update on Work to Rule

Do not volunteer for:

  • Dr. Nolin’s advisory committee

  • Dr. Nolin’s “portrait of a graduate” committee

  • Dr. Nolin’s “community forums” — either planning or participating

    • Wednesday, November 1st, 7:00 p.m.: School Safety, Restorative Practice, School Resource Officer Program

    • Wednesday, November 15th, 7:00 p.m.: METCO Program Overview

    • Monday, December 11th, 7:00 p.m.: K-5: Family Literacy Night with New Elementary Literacy Curriculum

    • Tuesday, January 9th, 7:00 p.m.: K-12 Mathematics Overview

10/25/23 Mediation Session

The NTA began the session by making the below counter-offer to the school committee on COLAs:

The school committee made the below counter-offer in reply:

The school committee made the increase in their third year offer of 3% contingent upon our accepting their changes to health insurance, effectively asking us to finance about half the cost of the 1% increase. Note that they also are no longer asking for a lower COLA for employees who are still stepping (now up from 1.8%, 1.8%, 1.8% in their prior offer to 2%, 2%, 3% in this offer).

So, yes, finally, we did get a "3%" COLA offer from them. That's good news, and indicative that they know where these negotiations need to go to settle. (Coaches, advisors, and others on stipends--know that we will not agree to a lower cost of living adjustment for you!) This sudden progress can only be attributed to our 1,200 plus member rally and petition signed by 1865 members! The community is taking notice to how the Newton's School Committee, Mayor Fuller, and Superintendent Nolin are bargaining with us, the school committee knows this, and they are responding at the table. But note! As we shall see below, they have also redoubled their campaign to mislead the public regarding negotiations.

Mayor Fuller's October 26 "Negotiations Update"

Mayor Fuller's email updates are found here (although the October 26 update I refer to here has not yet been posted).

It is dismaying and maddening to read the Mayor saying this.....

People Matter Most of All.

The members of the Newton School Committee and I have deep respect and appreciation for our educators and their professionalism and dedication. They are committed, talented, inventive champions for our students and our schools. Our teachers and para-professionals work hard and deliver a top-notch education for our students.

Here in Newton, residents, parents, and business owners join me in believing that the Newton Public Schools are the bedrock of our community and we know that educators are the foundation of NPS (my italics).

....and then this....

Current Pay and Benefits Given the critical importance of the people who work for NPS, it should be no surprise that our NPS educators – teachers and para-professionals – are paid well and consistently rank among the top in statewide salary comparisons. They also have excellent benefits. See for yourself. .....and then to demonstrate this, Fuller refers readers to Dr. Nolin's slides used by Kathy Shields in her Negotiations Update presented at Monday's School Committee meeting. That slide deck just rehashes many of the same poorly framed, misleading arguments the school committee has been making for a year now. We had hoped for better from Dr. Nolin. First of all, let me just say that our argument with Mayor Fuller, the school committee, and Dr. Nolin is not that NTA members are poorly paid, or that we have poor benefits. It is that we are not paid enough, that our earning power has declined considerably and needs to be adjusted to account for the increased cost of living, and that our compensation ranks consistently at the bottom in comparison to districts with which Newton is comparable in terms of educational excellence, and with which it competes to hire employees. First rehash: conflation of steps, lanes and COLAs: Nolin and Shields claim that, in calculating how much of an increase in salary NTA employees receive, you have to add up their step increases, lane change increases, and their COLAs. I am tempted to go into the weeds and explain just how absurd this calculation is, but I will resist that temptation. I will simply say that Dr. Nolin and Kathy Shields ignore the fact that without an adequate COLA, the entire salary schedule of steps and lanes is devalued for everyone on it. And that is what is happening under their watch. Next rehash: false comparisons. They've clearly heard people saying that Newton's average salaries, as reported by DESE, are low. So they concoct a list of comparables that are not really educationally comparable to Newton, and then show why, even though the average salary in these districts is higher than in Newton, their "real" salaries are not. They first claim that you cannot look at average salaries, because average salaries do not reflect the relative age and experience of the staff in each respective district. Maybe, but there are other factors that contribute to the average salary besides the age and experience of that district's employees. The number of steps in a salary scale makes a difference, with more steps leading to lower averages because it takes longer to reach the highest salary. And Dr. Nolin and Kathy Shields seem to assume that the average age and experience of Newton's educators is lower than those in its comparable districts. Why make this assumption? And if it is true, why does Newton have such a young staff? Why so much attrition? Let's look at the average salary of a Unit A member in Newton in the school year 2020-2021, the latest year for which DESE provides this data, with respect to districts that are educationally comparable to Newton. But let's use a different list of comparable districts: Belmont, Brookline, Concord-Carlisle, Lexington, Lincoln- Sudbury, Wayland, Wellesley, and Weston. Note: Not Framingham, Bedford, Arlington, Needham, Waltham, Dedham, or Watertown. Note: This list comes from the Citizens Advisor Group Final Report's benchmarking recommendations. Then Alderwoman Ruthanne Fuller was Vice Chair of this advisory group. She should know better.

Nolin and Shields would have us believe that this is meaningless data. But the fact that the average Newton salary is at the bottom of the list of districts with which it should be compared, and with which it competes for educators can't just be meaningless.

Let's use Dr. Nolin's methodology to see what we learn when we compare to different districts. Dr. Nolin compared Newton's salaries to the salaries last year, FY23, in Belmont, Bedford, and Needham. I will compare Newton's salaries to the salaries in Weston, Wellesley and Lexington, three comparable districts that just settled contracts that will extend out to 2026. By doing this, we can see what will happen to Newton's salaries compared to the salaries in these three districts using the School Committee's most recent COLA proposal and then the NTA's most recent proposal.

All Salaries above are for School Year 2025-26 Bold = Highest salary Underlined = Lowest salary Note that Newton has a 14 step salary schedule, Lexington a 12, Weston a 12, and Wellesley a 16. The more steps, the longer it takes to get from an entry level salary to a full salary. So in Lexington and Weston, their members would reach the top salary two years earlier than an educator would who works in Newton. The evidence is pretty clear. If the Newton School Committee, Mayor Fuller, and Dr. Nolin have their way, Newton's top salaries will become extremely uncompetitive. While step one salaries will be somewhat comparable to those in Lexington and Wellesley, competitive parity will erode quickly as educators gain experience. And that means competing for more experienced and skilled educators would become very difficult. In short--compare Newton's salaries to the salaries in districts that are actually educationally comparable to Newton and have already settled their contracts with their unions, and you will see that the School Committee's proposals will put Newton salaries well below those in its educationally comparable peer districts. Note as well that in both Lexington and Weston, their salary schedules only have 12 steps, so educators reach the top step more quickly, which helps to explain why average salaries are higher right now than those in Newton, and why they will become even higher if COLAs are limited to what the school committee has proposed. If the school committee wants to provide an excellent education, they need to do more than just use the word excellence more frequently. They need to stop comparing Newton to districts that are not educationally comparable to Newton. Finally, I will look at Dr. Nolin's comparison of Unit C salaries. She picks a large list of neighboring districts, but they do not mention Somerville, which a year ago won a contract that (1) offers Unit C employees pay advances based on educational achievement (lanes) and (2) starts salaries for anyone with a BA at around $40,000 per year. It is no wonder that only 20% of Unit C members stay in Newton long enough to earn a longevity check (11 years): When your pay starts at $27,000 per year, a 6% step increase each year only adds a little over a thousand dollars to your pay--not enough to even keep up with the increase in the cost of living. For any Unit C employee paying for family health insurance, nearly their entire step increase was absorbed by higher premiums. It is no wonder that over 100 aide positions remained unfilled last year. Comparing Newton to districts that have, to date, made little progress in paying their educational support professionals a living wage is hardly a comparison at all. At least in Somerville, their most recent contract begins the process of paying a living wage to Unit C paraprofessionals. Newton pays 11 or 12 year veterans close to a living wage. But rather than brag about what they are doing, the school committee should be working with the NTA to make further progress. Unit C employees comprise the most racially and culturally diverse employees of the NPS. It's time for school committee to actually embrace the values of equity in its compensation for its lowest paid employees. Next Rehash: Newton offers the best benefits to its employees Defined Benefit Pension Plan: Dr. Nolin and Kathy Shields go on to discuss just how generous Newton's benefits are. They start out by stating that unlike most private sector employees, NPS educators have a defined benefit pension. They neglect to say:

  • That Newton Public School employees do not participate in the social security system, and as a consequence are not entitled to that benefit.

  • Having Unit A members enrolled in the state run MTRS saves the district considerable money. Private sector employers pay 6.5% of an employee's salary towards social security, which is matched by the employee. The Newton Public Schools pays nothing towards their employees pension plan. Newton Public Schools employees, however, pay between 10% and 11% of their salaries towards their pensions.

  • While the defined benefit pension Newton Public Schools employees receive is more generous than a social security pension initially, social security pension payments are adjusted annually to account for inflation based on the consumer price index. Social Security pension payments went up by 1.6% to cover increases in the cost of living for 2019, 1.3% for 2020, 5.9% for 2021, 8.7% for 2022, and in January of 2024 will increase by 3.2% to cover cost of living increases for 2023. The cost of living adjustments for NPS employees is negligible--about $360 per year--not nearly enough to keep up with inflation.

  • Cost of living adjustments in the last years of an employee's employment are critical. These increases to their salaries (or lack thereof) will define the benefit the member of the MTRS (or Newton Pension System for Unit C and E employees) receives for the rest of their life.

In short, the School Committee is bragging about how generous they are in providing a benefit that--they don't pay for, which actually saves them considerable money, and which is exactly the same for educators who work in any other school district. Health Insurance: The first thing Nolin and Shields talk about is how much money the district could save if it just went into the state run GIC--implying that not going into the GIC is an act of generosity. First of all, if the benefits and savings of going into the GIC were so great, Newton has had the right to unilaterally determine that we should move our health insurance coverage to the GIC since 2011. They have chosen not to, and they chose not to once again this past year when they moved our plans to Blue Cross Blue Shield. In fact, no district has moved to the GIC for many years--in fact some districts are moving out of the GIC. No doubt, we have good health insurance. Although our premiums are relatively high, our out of pocket costs are relatively low. But Dr. Nolin and Kathy Shields neglect to add that last year our premiums went up between 13% and 18%--as much as $1,000 for some members. And they want to imply that, because the district has generously chosen not to enter into the GIC, that the NTA should agree to the school committee's proposal to shift more of the cost of health insurance onto NTA members. Our health insurance benefits do not result from the benevolence of the City of Newton. We saw last year how benevolent the City of Newton was when, in order to partially close its budget gap, the city cut Medicare Part B reimbursements for retirees. Our health insurance benefits, like all of our benefits, have been won through collective bargaining with the district. Work Year Benefits: It's hard to hear that our superintendent would argue that a benefit of being a teacher is the shorter year they work, and imply that this "benefit" should be factored in when considering how well educators are compensated. It feels disrespectful that we would have to even address this argument. We all know that educators work over their breaks. holidays, and summers. And many educators work more than one job--especially Unit C employees. But that's beside the point. We work 182.5 days per year because that is how long the school year is, and if districts hire educators, they hire them to work for the time they are needed. You need people to fill those roles, then that is the yearly schedule they follow, and you have to pay them to do that. If you want to pay educators less for filling those roles, don't expect to fill them. It is also imperative to note that Unit C employees are paid by the hour, and because the year is only ten months long, and because most of them work less than 40 hours per week, this contributes to them not earn a living wage. Yet what is the alternative? The district does not want to increase their hours to match the schedules at their schools. And when Unit C employees work in the summer, for most of them, their hourly rate is reduced, as this period of time is not covered by the collective bargaining agreement. For Unit C employees, the shorter year is not a "benefit," but an impediment to earning a living wage. It shouldn't be. Additional Benefits: Parental leave. We fought hard in our last contract to improve the district's parental leave policy. We are negotiating now to increase the number of days that are paid to 60. Lexington just agreed to provide 60 days of parental leave in its most recent contract. Boston provides that. It's humane, and it would be reasonably inexpensive for the district to provide. AND, hiring a sub for 60 days rather than 40 increases the probability of finding a more qualified individual. Children of NTA employees may attend NPS at no charge on a space available basis. This is an important benefit, one which, notably, the school committee has fought hard to compromise in these negotiations. Final rehash: We have no money! The cost of the different proposals we have put on the table is really unclear from the information they provide. Are these the cumulative amount of making these changes, or are they yearly costs, or are some one thing and some another. And since when do you calculate the cost of the NTA proposal by adding in those of your own proposals that we have rejected? They claim that the NTA proposal costs nearly $900,000 more because we won't accept their proposal to increase premium splits in the employers favor for PPO plan users, that we won't increase co-pays for urgent care and minute clinic visits, and that we won't increase the deductible members pay from $250/$500 to $400/$800. That's the savings of the district's proposal, not the cost of ours. In any case, we don't know where they came up with these numbers. What we know is this:

  • For the FY23 school budget, there were $4 million in cuts; the city ran a nearly $29 million surplus that year.

  • For this year's FY24 school budget, there are an additional $4 million in cuts; the city this year ran a nearly $29 million dollar surplus once again.

  • This year, the City of Newton resolved a long standing dispute with Eversource that resulted in the Overlay account being able to release $26 million into the city budget, with EverSource's $3.5 million in property tax now added to the city's operating budget for every year going forward.

  • Only $13 million of $63 million in ARPA funding went to the NPS.

For all of her talk of valuing the schools, Mayor Fuller does not value the schools--that is clear in her budget priorities. Because the city has ample resources to fund the schools, and Mayor Fuller is choosing not to. Instead, she has created an unnecessary and artificial crisis in school funding two years running. The city has ample resources to settle a fair contract. Mayor Fuller is determined to be the Mayor who breaks the pattern of school district after school district winning good contracts. Mayor Fuller seems to believe she will break the rising tide of union power on the shores of Newton. That tide rose once again on Monday night. And it will not break. What is breaking now, Mayor Fuller, are our schools. You are breaking them in the interests of an ideologically driven animus against unions. Our children are suffering from the disruption of two years of cuts, from inadequate resources, from educators who are exhausted, demoralized, and unable to believe that their school leaders have failed them so completely. The tide will continue to rise, Mayor Fuller. The community is rising with us, Mayor Fuller. Enough fighting. Fully fund the schools. Fair contract now.

In solidarity, Mike Zilles, President Newton Teachers Association


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