On Tuesday afternoon, representatives of the Boston public schools and the Boston Teachers Union will try to do something they have found impossible for two years.
They will try to put aside their mutual irritation and try to agree on a contract.
This is something employers and employees do all the time. The process is, admittedly, not painless. But the sparring between the School Department and the teachers has done little but drain time and energy away from the urgent mission of improving the city’s schools.
“We want an agreement,” School Department spokesman Matthew Wilder said. “We just need to make sure it’s a good contract that has reforms for kids.”
The sides formally declared that they had reached an impasse back in April. Tuesday’s session is part of a last-ditch effort to avoid a cumbersome mediation process that will only make this painful exercise even more so.
The two sides haven’t been face-to-face in nearly a month, reflecting the lack of urgency that many observers find maddening.
Without actually talking to each other, the sides have made some progress recently. The union offered a major concession on teacher evaluations, long believed to be an important sticking point in the contract negotiations.
They agreed, with some modifications, to accept state guidelines for evaluating teachers, an offer the School Department quickly accepted. Game over, right?
Well, no, because that sticking point was immediately replaced by others. The union, in exchange for graciously agreeing that bad teaching is indeed a major problem that needs to be addressed, added proposals: It wants six more school nurses, eight more social workers, a one-student reduction in class size in sixth and ninth grades. These reasonable requests are the new barriers to a contract.
“They’ve met us most of the way on performance evaluation and we can certainly work with them,” said union president Richard Stutman. “We asked for things that don’t enrich any members and are important for students.”
Stutman called on Superintendent Carol R. Johnson to appear at the bargaining table. “She has been a no-show,” declared Stutman, never one for understatement. “We would like to hear the superintendent explain why these things aren’t important.” He also wants her to explain the decisions of her bargaining team.
But while Stutman quarrels with Johnson, the people who are suffering from this logjam are the 58,000 students in the public schools. They are the silent majority that is being ignored while the grownups squabble.
The other party that should desperately want a deal, frankly, is Johnson herself. Since the school opening fiasco last year — when the School Department suddenly couldn’t get kids to school on time — she has faced a steady drumbeat of criticism. She has protected, and defended, an administrator who was a domestic abuser. She has issued school closing plans that made parents want to rip their hair out. She has received a lackluster evaluation from the School Committee. Johnson should take the opportunity for a victory.
Without an agreement, the parties would turn to mediation. But it is nonbinding, and could mean more gridlock.
It says everything that resolving the biggest issue of the negotiations has settled nothing. It makes clear that both sides are too entrenched, too driven by ego, and simply too ornery to find common ground.
They need to take the opening they have now, because needed reforms are being held hostage. For the sake of the kids they claim to be fighting for, they need to finish the job.