The Boston Teachers Union threatened legal action against the School Department on Tuesday if it unilaterally implements a new teacher evaluation system that could quicken the dismissal of unsatisfactory teachers.
The union told the School Department in a letter that it was “dismayed” the department would impose the new system on Sept. 4 without the union’s consent and said it may pursue the matter with the state Department of Labor Relations.
The letter represents the first time the union has formally raised objections to the plan and threatened possible legal recourse since the city announced its plan two weeks ago, amid negotiations over a new teachers contract that have dragged on for more than two years.
“What we are looking for is fair and rigorous performance evaluation procedures,” Richard Stutman, the union president, said in an interview. “We want good teachers and excellent teaching. The School Department wants something simple and streamlined. They refuse to discuss items we think will benefit children by helping teachers be the best they can be.”
But the School Department said in a letter it fired off to the union that it had no intention of pulling back on implementing the new evaluation system.
“The Boston Teachers Union’s action — that they will essentially block our plan — is a clear signal of their intention of never allowing us to put in place an evaluation system that works for kids,” Matthew Wilder, a School Department spokesman, said in an interview. “We think it makes no sense that a teacher who receives an unsatisfactory job performance could stay in the classroom a whole year without any interventions.”
Creating a new method to evaluate teachers has emerged as the biggest stumbling block in talks over a new teacher contract. Boston is under a state deadline to implement a new system for this school year to comply with changes to state regulations last year that call for making student test scores a central part of judging a teacher’s performance and speeds up the process for firing unsatisfactory teachers.
The dispute has cost Boston more than $9 million in federal funds that were aimed at providing bonuses to highly effective teachers because the two sides were unable to agree on a new evaluation system last winter, a condition of receiving the grant money.
Now, a failure to implement a new system for this school year could cost Boston even more money: In exchange for accepting federal Race to the Top money to overhaul public schools, Boston agreed to implement the new evaluation system for this school year.
“I’m disappointed the Boston Teachers Union is digging in their heels on teacher evaluations,” said Linda Noonan, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, which released a report two years ago that found about half of Boston’s teachers had not been evaluated over the previous two years. “Everyone agreed the old system was broken.”
In an effort to speed up a contract settlement, the Department of Labor Relations announced Monday it would investigate the contract dispute and recommend a resolution, under a process known as fact-finding that was requested by Mayor Thomas M. Menino. But that process could take months.
The Boston Teachers Union is basing its opposition to implementation on a state labor law that requires school districts to negotiate changes in workplace conditions with their unions. Even the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, in revising regulations for teacher evaluations, acknowledged that school districts would have to secure agreements with their unions.
But the School Department countered in its letter that a nearly 30-year-old Supreme Judicial Court ruling enables a public employer to unilaterally implement changes to workplace conditions after contract negotiations reach an impasse. The School Department and the union each declared an impasse earlier this year.
Few districts in Massachusetts have gained union consent on revising teacher evaluations. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education initially had wanted districts receiving Race to the Top money to have union agreements by Sept. 1, but has since said it would be flexible, relying on financial sanctions as a last resort.
Boston United for Students, a grass-roots organization pushing for changes in the teachers contract, is hoping a resolution on teacher evaluations will come soon.
“Teachers do a hard job, and I think the union is possibly trying to do what’s best for teachers and the students,” said Teena-Marie Johnson, a coalition member and a 2009 Boston high school graduate.
But as the talks drag on, she said, she is starting to question the union’s motives.