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The Boston Globe

West

Framingham

In icy cold, teachers protest lack of pact

Clad in hats, gloves, and down coats, dozens of Framingham teachers picketed outside Framingham High School in freezing temperatures last week to demonstrate their exasperation with the lack of a union contract with the town.

“Our contract negotiations are not going well,” said Rosemary Jebari, a Framingham High teacher, her nose turned red from bone-chilling morning temperatures in the single digits Thursday. “We just have not been making any progress.”

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The contract between the Framingham Teachers Association, which is the local teachers union, and the town expired on Aug. 31. Educators have been fighting to get a cost of living increase on par with inflation — which they did not receive in the last contract — as well as language in the agreement that clearly defines the teaching workday. The teachers are also hoping to make limited class sizes a priority.

However, while teachers are advocating for these three main points to be addressed in the upcoming contract, Framingham officials are saying the town might not be able to afford a substantial cost of living adjustment.

“We have the utmost respect for what our teachers do, but we are restricted,” said David Miles, chairman of the Framingham School Committee. “We are a town department. We only have so much money.”

Sam Miskin, president of the union, said the picket line had a fairly high turnout. He bounced on the balls of his feet, trying to stay warm, as he passed out posters reading “Support Framingham Teachers” and “Fair contract for teachers = good schools for kids.”

He said the picket line was strategically planned Thursday to show support for the teachers before the union and the town continued negotiations with a mediator on that day in the first session of the new year.

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“It’s been a frustrating experience so far,” Miskin said. “We’re certainly hoping to have a resolution soon.”

Although the contracts between the union and the town usually last three years, the two parties arranged a one-year agreement last year because the down economy and budget woes put the town in a tight financial spot, officials said.

“We decided on a one-year contract because the town was worried about fiscal issues, with both the economy and a loss of tax base,” said Christopher Martell, a Framingham Teachers Association member and a history teacher at Framingham High. “But we’re really being pinched. We’re not even asking for a raise. We’re not asking for an amazing cost of living adjustment — just something to help pay our bills.”

“Last year’s contract was essentially just concessions by teachers,” said Miskin, who has taught math at Framingham High for seven years. “We had a zero percent cost of living adjustment, which impacted every teacher in the district, and then less-experienced teachers had their step-raises [to full teaching salaries] frozen for a half year.”

However, Miles said that last year’s policy was mutually decided upon. “Both sides agreed that rather than the teachers accepting a cost of living adjustment, that money could be better and more effectively spent elsewhere,” he said. Scott also said that although issuing a cost of living increase would depend on the town’s revenue projections, he noted that he doesn’t “think that’s an item that there’s great disagreement on.”

As negotiations have stalled, teachers say they are growing restless for a contract, and town officials are pledging that they will try to reach a timely agreement.

Miles, who has served on the School Committee for 11 years, said it is not unusual for teacher contracts to be negotiated past the former agreement’s expiration.

“People were hoping that it would be wrapped up by now, but it hasn’t,” Miles said. He said school officials have to negotiate carefully because teacher salaries are a large portion of the school budget.

“Teacher salaries are 75 to 80 percent of the school budget,” he said. “That doesn’t leave too much to take care of everything else. We have to be careful about that balance.”

Framingham Superintendent Stacy Scott said last week that “the town is very eager to work out a mutually agreeable contract.”

“We remain optimistic that we will come to an agreement on points, yet there are lots of details we’re still working on,” Scott said.

 Scott said the School Committee has clear policy language relating to the educators’ workday and class sizes, which is something the teachers are pushing for in their own contract.

“We obviously don’t want class sizes beyond our own policy, but we feel that class size is appropriately managed in our policy at this time,” Scott said, adding that there are “relatively few” classes that are over capacity as designated by the School Committee.

Scott did note that certain classes, like high school history, are surpassing the recommended limit. However, he said that the district is looking into adding more faculty to help alleviate the problem.

“We have plans going into next year permitting us to do adjustments in staffing to make sure all classes are at the appropriate class size, as long as we can afford it,” Scott said.

And as the educators faced bitter cold Thursday morning to publicize their opinions, waving to carpools of students honking and giving the thumbs-up to their teachers, one thing remained clear.

“We love this town, and that’s why we choose to work in Framingham,” Martell said. “But we feel we need to be supported on the School Committee’s end.

Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jaclyn.reiss@globe.com.

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