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  • Writer's pictureMike Zilles

Response to School Committee Negotiations Update

Updated: Jul 29, 2023

I apologize for burdening you with difficult news in the middle of the summer, but I have a number of urgent matters to communicate with you that have emerged over the course of the past week.

During our July 20 negotiations, the School Committee unilaterally declared negotiations at an impasse. This means they intend to file a petition with the Department of Labor Relations (DLR) for mediation.

We refused to join them in declaring an impasse. The evidence does not suggest that we are at impasse. The evidence suggests that the school committee has refused to negotiate in good faith.

Rather it appears that this decision by the school committee is the first step in a legal process that the school committee hopes would allow them to test a novel legal theory: that when the parties to negotiations have reached impasse, the district may impose its last best offer. While this is a tactic used by employers in the private sector, in the private sector it is also legal to for workers to strike as a counterweight to such action.

In the interest of winning a cheap contract, the School Committee wants to turn Newton's schools into a battleground, with the entire state watching.

The NTA has always been and will continue to be relentless in our pursuit of what is right for our members, the profession, Newton’s students, and its schools. Instead of digging into the hard work of finding common ground on reasonable proposals on topics like humane parental leave benefit, mental health supports for students in every school, and a cost of living adjustment that helps educators keep up with inflation and honors their commitment to Newton’s children, the School Committee is now spending its time — and paying its outside attorney handsomely — to divide our community and spread lies about negotiations.

Despicably, the school committee, the mayor, and, sadly, our new superintendent have immediately taken steps to wage a public relations battle in what appears to be a coordinated attack on the NTA, Newton teachers, and our union rights generally.

The Mayor and the School Committee have engaged in an email“public relations”campaign in which they grossly misrepresent the status of negotiations and intentionally elicit fear in the community. An email was sentaround 4:30 by Superintendent Nolin to the parent community, just minutes after our negotiation session ended on Thursday. At around 6:00, Mayor Fuller forwarded the same email to the wider Newton community, clearly a coordinated and pre-planned offensive.

Dr. Nolin, the school committee, and Mayor Fuller sent their email in an effort to scare and divide a community that now more than ever needs to be united in support of Newton’s children and schools. In the email, they imply that NTA members are engaging in a work stoppage, but no such stoppage is planned. They conflate normal job actions like work to rule, putting up lawn signs, visibility stand-outs and rallies with illegal strikes. And finally, they fabricate falsehoods about the status of negotiations to make themselves look reasonable when, in reality, the School Committee seeks unprecedented concessions while offering a paltry financial package and only engaging in surface negotiations around critical working conditions topics such as work day, non-teaching duties, and health insurance.

Their email appears to be designed to both alarm the Newton community and provoke from us the very reaction about which they claim such deep concern.

In addition to these tactics by political actors in the community, our new Superintendent has already attempted to thwart our concerted union activity on two fronts:

  • because every single elementary classroom teacher who had volunteered to “soft launch” the new elementary ELA curriculum “un-volunteered,” Dr. Nolin has now mandated that all first and second grade teachers implement the new literacy curriculum immediately upon return to school this September, and that kindergarten teachers implement it beginning in January. She has encouraged teachers to begin work on learning to teach the new curriculum over the summer.

  • Second, because we had planned an opening day action at the Newton South Field House, she has cancelled that event, and replaced it with “educator celebration” events at Newton South High School and Newton North High School, the details of which she says she has not yet worked out.

Steps moving forward… I will send out a detailed and true account of where we stand on individual contract issues early next week. (Here’s a preview: the School Committee proposes less than a 5% increase over three years for those on steps, and under 6% for those at the top step).

First, I will elaborate on some of the points above.

Bargaining to Achieve Impasse

We have negotiated three times since the end of the school year: on June 26th, Monday, July 17, and, Thursday, July 20. In our last session, the School Committee told us they intend to file a petition for mediation with the Department of Labor Relations (DLR), because they believe that we are so far apart that we are now at “impasse”--irremediably stuck--and they invited us to join them in filing that petition. We refused.

In these last three sessions, they have stood in the way of further progress:

  • they have refused to try to reach tentative agreements on any individual proposals, insisting that they will only consider “package proposals”;

  • they rejected outright the two package proposals we presented and refused to consider any part of either full package independently; in our last package, we included a significant reduction in our COLA proposal that would have lowered the overall cost of our COLAs by $10 million over the course of a three year contract. They never even mentioned this change at the table;

  • even as they have said the issue that divides us is money, they have refused to bargain those individual proposals that have no financial implications;

  • they have refused to work with an independent mediator we recommended, and whom they agreed is highly skilled.

The School Committee must stop playing legal and political games and get to the hard work of bargaining: listening, compromising, and focusing on the best interests of everyone in the Newton community. Overheated rhetoric and novel legal theories won’t cut it. The NTA stands ready, as always, to bargain in good faith.

A Campaign to Suppress our Job Actions

In Dr. Nolin’s email, sent on July 19, a day before our last negotiations session, she encourages staff to volunteer for professional development this summer, and she says that I supported her efforts to encourage members to do so. The whole language of the email—she talks about what is “allowable” and what not—is contrary to the spirit of our union actions. We engage in these actions through our solidarity, not through directives. And worse, it is simply not the place of the superintendent of schools, or any non-union administrator, to be interpreting union campaign actions to union members, period.

But what exactly does voluntary mean? When you click this link to sign up for voluntary professional development, you are taken to this page. What you discover there is that elementary first and second grade teachers will be required to adopt the new literacy curriculum this fall, clearly a response to NTA members “un-volunteering” from the planned soft launch of this curriculum. Now, even though this curriculum was just approved in late June, it has been made mandatory.

But a last minute decision by central administrators to make the first and second grade rollout mandatory this September, communicated via an email link to purported voluntary summer professional development opportunities, and done so hastily and with such lack of respect that both the literacy specialists and the literacy curriculum coordinator found out about the mandatory rollout through that same email link—this is hardly conducive to an effective introduction of the new curriculum. It is a recipe for chaos, confusion, and inordinate stress on an already overtaxed staff. It’s unconscionable. And Dr. Nolin cites me as being “very helpful.” I did not give “permission” to her to cite my “clarification” of what is allowable. In fact, I had no idea this was coming.

So I will tell you here, in my own words, the position of union leadership on this rollout. One of the “professional development opportunities” elementary teachers can sign up for is a two hour window on a few dates in August to look at the new materials. I urge you: DO NOT sign up for this“voluntary professional development opportunity.” If you have already done so, email Ayesha Farag or Dr. Nolin and request that your name be withdrawn from the volunteer list. And please do not volunteer for any of the other PD opportunities offered either, and if you have volunteered, please un-volunteer.

Note that not participating in these opportunities is not a statement about their value for you as an educator or for our students. It is a refusal to do work to further district initiatives in the face of the disrespect with which the district treats us as bargaining“partners.”

Finally, opening day. Let me share with you what I wrote to the co-presidents of Newton PTO school council:

As you are probably aware, the NTA as well as the Newton custodians and the school secretaries will all be returning to school without a renewed contract. The tradition has been for the whole staff to gather at Newton South, and to have the mayor, the chair of the school committee, the president of the NTA, and the superintendent address Newton Public School educators.

It tends to be an uncomfortable event for the mayor, the chair of the school committee, and the superintendent, because as the president of the NTA, I speak to and represent the needs and concerns of educators, and what is foremost on their minds is the lack of a contract--again. It is an opportunity for NTA members to show our elected and appointed school and city leaders that, indeed, the NTA bargaining team has the full support of NTA members. It's an important event for that reason, among others, not least of which is that this is the only time the full staff of the Newton Public Schools has the opportunity to gather in one place as a community.

I have five minutes to speak, and everyone else, together, speak for about 30 to 45 minutes. Nonetheless, and of course, the event has become more of a union rally than a celebration of returning to school! Educators in Newton have lost faith that their political and administrative leaders really care about them--but they know their union does! The mayor and the chair of the school committee need to hear that. And the new superintendent needs to see a real measure of the work she has before her.

A"red carpet" welcome back also will be greeted with skepticism by the members of the NTA as well. Among so-called school leaders and other community leaders, I believe behind the scenes there has been a lot of hand-wringing about the contract we won in if slightly less than 3% cost of living increases were"extravagant” and the cause of the budget cuts this year--and not the chronic underfunding of the schools by Mayor Fuller.

I will be meeting with the co-chairs to discuss our concerns, and asking them to not participate in this charade of showing educators how much they are “appreciated” as they return to school for a new year. We do not want mere words or tokens of appreciation. We want a fair contract, fairly and respectfully negotiated. If the district persists on showing us the so-called “red carpet,” we will organize an action to show our disdain for this treatment. Stay tuned!

In solidarity,

Mike Zilles



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