In a rare move, a frustrated Mayor Thomas M. Menino asked state labor officials Thursday to investigate the more than two-year stalemate over a new teacher contract and to recommend a resolution, as he accused union officials of unleashing new delay tactics that could thwart any possibility of wrapping up the talks soon.
Menino also announced that the School Department would unilaterally impose a new teacher evaluation system, even though the two sides have been unable to reach an agreement on one. Boston is under a state deadline this fall to enact a new evaluation system or risk losing millions of dollars in state funds.
The mayor’s acted just one month after school officials made a major concession at the negotiating table when they withdrew a request to extend the school day by 45 minutes because they said union officials demanded too much money. Union officials had requested the contractually hourly rate for the extra time, but school officials said the city could not afford that and offered significantly less.
“In public and private, [the Boston Teachers Union] indicated to our team that moving past the issue of lengthening the school day in the negotiations would lead to timely agreement on other outstanding issues,” Menino wrote in a joint letter to the teacher union president, Richard Stutman, and the director of the state Department of Labor Relations, Erica Crystal. “Instead, the negotiations have now moved from one area of impasse to another, as the [Boston Teachers Union] adds new complications to issues our team believed were largely settled.”
In an interview, Stutman fired back, denying the union was holding up the talks and characterizing the mayor’s call for state fact-finding as “an admission from City Hall there is a lack of confidence in the leadership of the school system.”
“I think he’s afraid to let the superintendent handle this process and wants to take it out of her hands formally,” he said. “I don’t think he has confidence in her continued leadership.”
That drew a sharp rebuke from Dot Joyce, the mayor’s spokeswoman. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” she said. “The mayor strongly supports the superintendent. That is why he is engaged in this process with her and her team.”
The exchange was the latest salvo in the increasingly acrimonious negotiations, which have featured public rallies and a war of words via electronic newsletters issued from each side. The talks officially broke down in March when the two sides declared an impasse, an act that moved the process under the oversight of the state Labor Division, which appointed a mediator.
Eight sessions have been held with the mediator, most recently on Wednesday. Two more sessions are scheduled for next week. The mediator is helping both sides find common ground, but makes no recommendations on proposals.
The mediation sessions and the call for a fact-finder, who would make recommendations on proposals to settle the contract, are considered unusual. Stutman, who has been involved with teacher union negotiations for 30 years, said he could not recall another time when talks were subject to mediation or fact-finding.
Stutman said he believed it was premature to go into fact-finding. “Progress has been slow but steady, and that’s the appropriate forum to be in right now, and we will continue in that forum,” Stutman said.
But city officials said the union is dragging out the talks. In particular, Menino zeroed in on the teacher evaluation issue. He accused union officials of pushing for arbitrary and lengthy deadlines in reviewing the performance of teachers deemed unsatisfactory, who under state regulations could be dismissed within a year.
He urged the state Labor Relations Department to open the typically closed-door fact-finding process to the public.
“Just as public input helped the parties identify the important issues, public observation of the fact-finding process could help them achieve them,” Menino wrote.
Stutman said he was uncertain if he would support a public fact-finding process and denied that the union is pushing proposals to weaken the teacher evaluation process.
Samuel Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a government watchdog funded by nonprofits and businesses, said going to fact-finding is long overdue.
“We fully support this move and wished it had happened sooner,” Tyler said. “Every chance was given to negotiate through normal negotiation sessions and mediation. I think [fact-finding] is a good step, and hopefully it will lead to systemic reform in the teacher contract.”James Vaznis can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.