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The Boston Globe

Metro

Some chafe at charter school’s low pay for tutors

Service model getting wide use

Match Charter Public High School on Commonwealth Avenue.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Match Charter Public High School on Commonwealth Avenue.

Match Charter School in Boston makes it clear: A year as one of its tutors is a lot of work.

“Think med school. Think military. Think your toughest semester in college,” according to a Q&A on the school’s website. “Corps members are virtually always ‘on-call’ to help students succeed academically.”

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But a dispute over the minimal pay for long hours of public service offers a rare glimpse into labor unrest at a charter school, where workers usually make less than their peers in traditional public schools and rarely belong to a union. Questions about tutors’ pay come as programs like Match proliferate in such places as Denver, Houston, and Chicago, and as Boston public schools expand their own intensive tutoring efforts.

For years Match billed the year of tutoring volunteerism — nearly 10-hour school days and additional duties at night — as an opportunity to give back and gain a true sense of what it is like to work in an urban school. For their efforts, the tutors, who are mainly recent college graduates, were paid a $7,500 annual stipend and received free housing.

But in an abrupt switch last summer, after recruiting this year’s 153-member tutoring force, Match decided to make them paid employees, at $8 an hour, the state’s minimum wage.

‘We have improved our pay and benefit package to tutors over anything we promised them.’

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Tutors ended up seeing little of that increase in their pay checks because Match also decided to start charging them $5,500 annually for housing and stopped reimbursing them for health insurance.

Some tutors also raised concerns they were not being paid for all the hours they were working, essentially reducing their hourly rate below the state’s minimum wage, according to e-mails and memos provided to the Globe.

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“They were trying to push us under the rug and be quiet,” said one tutor, who declined to be identifiedbecause she was not authorized to speak with the media. “It’s incredibly disheartening.”

Match defended its handling of the change in pay structure, saying it needed time to ramp up record-keeping efforts. The school eventually paid $82,000 in back wages to nearly all the tutors in October — the median payout was about $540 — after implementing a time-card system, enabling tutors to file all their hours for the previous two months.

“We have never wavered from our commitment to meet minimum wage laws, and from the outset of the academic year worked hard to manage tutor schedules accordingly,” Stig Leschly, the school’s chief executive officer, wrote in an e-mail.

But he added, “As we got underway, we realized how difficult it is to regulate exactly the work patterns of 153 tutors and how — despite our preferences and intentions — we might be out of synch with minimum wage requirements.”

The idea of intensive tutoring is gaining traction in the Boston public schools. To stave off a state takeover of English High School and the Elihu Greenwood Leadership Academy, the School Department has partnered with the nonprofit Blueprint School Networks, which created a math tutoring program based on Match’s model.

But the partnership has run into obstacles with the Boston Teachers Union, which contends the now approximately $20,000-a-year salary for the tutors is still too low and has filed for arbitration.

Match says it reclassified its tutors to employees to “professionalize” the positions.

Tutors play a critical role at Match, which has campuses on Commonwealth Avenue and in Jamaica Plain. Aside from working with students individually or in small groups, they often teach electives, serve as teaching assistants, or coach sports or drama.

They also call parents with updates on their children, help students at night over the phone with homework, and, in some cases, enroll in Match’s teacher-training program.

In promotional materials, Match touts the tutoring program in boosting the percentage of students scoring proficient or higher on the MCAS from 70 percent in 2004, the year before tutoring began, to 100 percent. Impressed with the results, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has been recommending Match’s tutoring program to underperforming schools.

The Match dispute came to light after Barrett Smith, a tutor, quit in October and then penned a column about his experience for “EduShyster,” an education blog known for critical views on charter schools.

“We had all been working between 50 and 60 hours per week or more,” Smith wrote. “But because administrators claimed they couldn’t afford to pay us even minimum wage for the work we were expected to do, our workloads were reduced — at least on paper. Currently, every one of the corps members is still working more than 40 hours and underreporting their hours.”

Smith, a Middlebury College graduate, never named Match in the column, but clues about the charter school’s identity were revealed in the headline “The Match that Started a Blaze: Tutors at a no-excuses charter school learn some hard lessons.” An accompanying picture featured an ignited match.

In an interview, Smith, who aspires to be a teacher, said he had read several criticisms of charter schools before taking the job as a tutor, but did not know what to think of them because he had never visited one.

“I went into it optimistically,” Smith said. “I liked the idea of living and working with other tutors.”

Match officials said tutors are discouraged from working off the clock, and they provided copies of e-mails and memos in which tutors were told to record all their time, including homework help over the phone.

”We can exhaustively prove every hour every tutor worked,” Leschly said in an interview.

He also said the website description of work expectations was a “marketing blurb” and not a formal or accurate statement of workload.

Match recruited the tutors months before this school year began under the premise that they would be public-service volunteers. The tutors signed an agreement, guaranteeing them the $7,500 stipend, free housing, and reimbursement for health insurance. Match later sent an e-mail to tutors suggesting they would probably be eligible for food stamps.

Then in the summer, after Match classified them as employees, the school bumped their annual pay to $13,600. But tutors saw little of that increase in their pay checks, as Match deducted for housing, health insurance, and contributions to a state-mandated retirement fund.

Making matters worse, some tutors said the higher pay rate disqualified them for food stamps and some tutors could not obtain student-loan deferments.

Match — fielding concerns from some tutors in September and October — revised compensation. It bumped up overall pay to $14,336, offered tutors $1,000 in lieu of the food stamps, stopped charging for health insurance, and reimbursed them $200 for prior insurance premium payments.

The deductions for housing remain. Match officials say they are charging tutors for the housing now out of fairness to a few tutors who rent their own housing. Match is also offering tutors 31 paid vacation days and unlimited personal and sick days.

“We have improved our pay and benefit package to tutors over anything we promised them at any point,” Leschly said. “We have treated them well. And from a strictly legal standpoint, we have never given up our right to increase pay or classify tutors as employees.”

Leschly disputed that complaints from tutors factored into the decision to implement time cards, saying the school was planning all along to use the cards if the need arose.

He said hours can deviate from the schedules because of “how long individual tutors take to complete assigned tasks and by autonomous choices tutors make to work independently with our students.”

“What errors arose in those first eight weeks were inadvertent, modest, and corrected definitively when we implemented time sheets,” Leschly said.

A few tutors interviewed recently at Match’s high school said the experience has been rewarding and is enticing them into careers as teachers.

“It’s very humbling to be here working with the students,” said Shelby Walton, 23, a Boston University graduate.

Match said only a small number of tutors complained about compensation changes.

But those tutors, who say their group numbered in the dozens at the height of the dispute in October, say they got an unexpected lesson in labor rights.

“The whole process we went through to get to this point was absurd,” one tutor said. “It was very disappointing to come here and be involved in this.”

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.

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