Opening Day Remarks August 31, 2022

Updated: Sep 6

The last time I greeted you in person for Opening Day was on August 28, 2019. Superintendent Fleishman cancelled the normal opening day ceremonies here at Newton South, but also offered the NTA the time—and this Field House—for us to hold a union meeting.


We took him up on the offer of time, but instead opted to hold our meeting at City Hall. Over a thousand of us, joined by many community supporters as well as reporters from the Globe, NBC news, WBUR and other outlets, rallied there to begin the 2019-2020 school year.


We rallied because we were beginning yet another year without a contract. But that rally was a powerful celebration of opening day and our solidarity. It was just one of many actions in a tough campaign that earned us a tentative agreement by late November.

TODAY, we are not here to rally—not yet anyway.


TODAY, fortunately, we are beginning the last year of that contract we negotiated back in 2019, which, among other results, brought us four years of fair cost of living increases, enhanced parental leave, more competitive starting salaries, and stable health insurance coverage.


Every year in my memory, at these opening day celebrations here at South, district leaders have told us how deeply appreciative they are of the work we do with Newton’s children.


But the history of returning to school so often without a contact has made it difficult to take at face value these expressions of gratitude. In the fall of 2006, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2014, and 2019—and those are just the years I can remember--we returned to school without a contract—and often worked for years before we were able to finally settle a new one.


I think we can all agree that this year’s negotiations have to be different. There is, of course, the looming fact that you all have worked so hard, often at great personal risk, over the course of this pandemic. You should not have to, once again, fight for a fair contract.


Then there is the fact that in the fall of 2023, rather than rallying, wouldn’t it be great if we could be greeting a new superintendent with a new contract secure? You have to ask: Who would want a position where they know district leaders are claiming they have no money—that is, a “structural deficit”--and the school’s unions are, once again mounting a powerful campaign because they know better?


Unfortunately, we already have reasons for concern.


First, last year’s budget crisis looms ominously over this year’s upcoming negotiations. Members of the School Committee and the administration expressed concern that our current contracts were too expensive and were the cause of an unsustainable budget gap. If you want to preserve programs in the future, the underlying message was, you will have to pay educators less.


Then there is this: The School Committee hired a new lawyer to represent them in negotiations this time around: Liz Valerio. She is the same attorney who represented Brookline in their three-year protracted negotiations with the Brookline Educators Union. We all know how that ended.


Now of course the district does face fiscal constraints. But we ask district leaders to bear in mind, even as you consider your budgetary limitations, that as educator, we too face our own:


Even with the raises we negotiated in our last contract, we actually earn less now than we did in the fall of 2019. Our salaries went up nearly 12%, but inflation has increased 15% in that same period.


Moreover, the teacher pay penalty, always high, just keeps growing. Right now, teachers in Massachusetts earn 20% less than their non-teacher college-educated counterparts.


Around the state, I keep hearing news of locals reaching agreement on contracts very much in line with the contracts we negotiated in 2019. And the city’s municipal unions are now working on contracts that pay them 3% cost of living increases for three to five years.


I think it is reasonable for us to expect the same—or better.


We will, if required, mount a full-fledged campaign, as we have always done. We have gotten very good at it. But we would rather that our district leaders get better at negotiations, and that we settle a contract this year with less of the drama, and, frankly, the stalling of previous years.


Now that would indeed be something to celebrate on opening day in the fall of 2023.


-Mike Zilles


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