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Massachusetts teachers union agrees to give up key rights on seniority

In a sweeping concession, the state’s largest teachers union has agreed to give up significant seniority rights, which determine how teachers are promoted and placed in schools, in return for an education advocacy group’s agreement to drop a far more sweeping ballot initiative opposed by the state’s teaching ranks.

Brokered between the Massachusetts Teachers Association and Stand for Children Massachusetts, a national education advocacy group, the agreement has received the support of legislative leaders who have shown a commitment to pass the compromise.

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Union president Paul Toner and Stand for Children’s executive director, Jason Williams, confirmed that they spent the last few days briefing key legislative leaders and presenting them with a draft bill.

Senate President Therese Murray lent her support to the agreement this week, a Murray spokesman said. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo stopped short of a promise, but through a spokesman said Thursday that he was “encouraged that both sides appear to have reached an agreement on a contentious issue.’’

The compromise came amid increasing signs that a more expansive plan to change the way teachers are hired, transferred, and laid off would be successful if it makes the November ballot. That proposal would also have given principals more authority in staffing decisions, and offered the state a greater say in how teachers are evaluated locally.

Williams has said that if the legislation does not make it to the governor’s desk by July 3, the final date by which it is required to submit its signatures to the secretary of state’s office, the measure will make the ballot and be put before the voters this fall.

The agreement would be the latest in a series of major shifts in educational management in Massachusetts and could further highlight what educational specialists say is the state’s position as a national leader in urban school reform.

‘This is very significant and emblematic of the sweeping change that is taking place.’

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“This is very significant and emblematic of the sweeping change that is taking place in Massachusetts education,’’ said Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, which has led an effort to improve city schools.

“Massachusetts is on the cutting edge of urban school reform in America, and this is another opportunity to bring some sanity to the way these schools are organized and run,’’ Grogan said, noting the recent raising of the cap on the number of urban charter schools and the establishment of flexible school models.

Governor Deval Patrick, who would need to sign off on the legislation for it to become law, declined comment Thursday.

Toner acknowledged Thursday that if forced to try to defeat the ballot question, the union - which represents more than 100,000 teachers statewide, including some at the college level - would face an uphill fight, and one that drains vital union resources.

“All along we have been trying to avoid a divisive ballot initiative,’’ Toner said. “We don’t think broad complex issues that are included in the initiative should be decided by a yes or no vote at the ballot box. A long, complicated ballot question is not something a voter should have to digest in a matter of moments in the voting booth.’’

Williams, too, said the compromise achieves his group’s objectives. “I feel strongly that this accomplishes the key policy objective laid out in our petition,’’ he said just before a meeting with Speaker DeLeo on Thursday. “The key themes that say job performance and the quality of a person’s work is what we should be looking at in staffing decisions that remain.’’

The compromise further meets the needs of both sides by avoiding an expensive campaign for the ballot initiative, which would be likely to cost each camp an estimated $3 million to $6 million.

But it may work most heavily in favor of the Democrats, who count the teachers unions as a key interest group, by avoiding a highly contentious public debate. That battle would potentially drive greater numbers of antiunion, conservative voters to the polls, a bloc of the electorate that would probably oppose US Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren in her battle to unseat Republican Scott Brown.

The strongest opposition will probably come from the Massachusetts Teachers Association’s rival, the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, a union with a quarter of the members. The federation represents mostly urban school teachers, including those in Boston. Those urban areas face far more frequent staff turnover and therefore tend to be more protective of seniority rights.

“We are opposed to this,’’ said Tom Gosnell, the president of the state federation, whose teachers would be covered by the agreement. “Seniority is a major issue for us.’’ He said his union would seek to offer amendments to the legislation, but declined to be specific about what changes it would seek.

The compromise differs from the ballot initiative in several key ways.

In addition to the seniority issue, the ballot initiative would have given the state the right to veto teacher evaluation systems that have been negotiated between a local school district and its union. Under current law, the state can review those plans, but cannot veto them. This veto power was stripped from the compromise, but instead they agreed to collect teacher data and have it reported publicly, school by school and district by district.

Finally, the ballot initiative would have required principals to sign off on a decision to transfer the teacher from one school to another. Under the compromise, the superintendent has to consult in good faith with the principal before making these decisions.

Many of the union’s rank and file were only just hearing details of the agreement Thursday. Dave Cuzzi, president of the Walpole Teachers’ Association and a teacher at Bird Middle School in East Walpole, said he thinks it will take time for teachers to digest the details.

He said he does not think many teachers have an opinion on the matter yet. But, he said he is confident in the union, adding, “The MTA is an elected leadership; they look out for the best interests of all the teachers.’’

George Viens, president of the Waltham Educators Association, said he has already made up his mind: The agreement is a better way of handling a complex problem. The ballot initiative “was far too sweeping to just be voted on,’’ he said. “It was not an appropriate way to be changing laws.’’

Michael Levenson of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Amanda Cedrone contributed to this report. Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.
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