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Newton teachers return without union contract

When school starts on Tuesday morning, Newton’s teachers will be working without a contract, and no sign of a meeting point between their union and the city.

The school year also begins with a superintendent working to recover from graduation speeches that left some parents, teachers, and students questioning whether the veteran educator should continue on the job.

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Newton Teachers Association president Michael Zilles said his members are ready to move forward toward a contract that he says would start to close the gap left by past negotiations.

Three years ago, the city’s finances were unstable, and Mayor Setti Warren set a firm limit of a 2.5 percent cost increase in all city contract negotiations.

His administration successfully negotiated contracts under that mandate, which helped put the city’s budget on solid financial ground.

During the last negotiations, according to Zilles, his membership understood the mayor’s position.

“The city was in a pretty bad way, and there was no end in sight,” he said. “We took hits on health insurance and compensation, and we agreed to increase the number of steps so it takes longer to get to a full salary.

“We made some very big sacrifices for the health of the system, now is the time to make some progress,” Zilles said.

The mayor declined to comment on whether he is sticking to the 2.5 percent figure for the current negotiations. Meaghan Maher, the city’s director of community engagement, said it is Warren’s policy to refrain from commenting on ongoing contract talks.

Meanwhile, teachers at an opening day session for the staff on Wednesday listened as Superintendent David Fleishman once again apologized for not attributing a portion of his commencement speeches at the city’s two high schools to one given a few days earlier by Governor Deval Patrick.

Fleishman, who was docked one week’s pay by the School Committee, told the teachers gathered at Newton South High that he has learned valuable lessons over the past “not so great” summer.

“As one who typically devotes considerable energy to both my written pieces and speeches, I learned a painful lesson about doing things in a sloppy and hasty manner and not meeting this standard,” he said, according to a transcript he provided to the Globe.

He also said he learned the value of collaboration.

“Some of you may feel that I have made your work with students more difficult, and for that I am truly sorry. As a result, I intend to address this issue directly with students at both high schools within the next couple of weeks,” he said.

He said he will talk about what he learned from his mistake, but spend the majority of his time answering questions from students. He received a standing ovation from the assembly at the conclusion of his speech, according to many in attendance Wednesday.

School Committee chairman Matthew Hills said the speech was “genuine, heartfelt,” and was a first signal that much of the school faculty and staff members are ready to move forward with Fleishman.

Zilles, the union leader, said Fleishman “did everything he should have done and did it well.”

But it was clear that teachers had more on their minds than the superintendent’s apology, including the unfinished contract negotiations, which began in April.

Zilles said his union is not planning any job actions, such as “work to rule,” in which only specific classroom duties are done, but its members will be “taking our case to the community, and the School Committee.”

The union’s effort started at Wednesday morning’s meeting, where teachers wore yellow T-shirts bearing the message “Competitive Wages = Excellent Schools.”

According to Zilles, salaries for Newton’s teachers have not kept pace with pay levels in other educationally comparable systems, such as in Brookline, Lexington, Wayland, Wellesley, and Weston.

For example, a teacher with 12 years experience in Newton would make $22,525 less than a teacher with similar experience in Wayland, and $15,070 less than a counterpart in Lexington, according to figures provided by Zilles.

At the top of the scale, the numbers are closer, he said.

“But in every stage of your career, all the school districts except Belmont pay more,” he said.

Hills, who is a part of the negotiating team, said in Newton there are more step increases built into the pay scale.

“The value of regular raises was worth something,” he said. “The underlying economics that was accepted by everyone involved three years ago, the Newton Teachers Association, the School Committee, school department, and the city, was that we would be comparable at the entry level, very comparable at the top steps, and very competitive with benefits.”

“But it would take longer to get to the top in Newton,” he said.

In exchange, Hills said, Newton teachers could look at the contract and see automatic step increases that would not be dependent on a new agreement being settled.

Zilles said the added steps just add to the time it takes to get to the top of the pay scale.

“There will be a constant rolling gap between what Newton earns and what teachers in other comparable towns earn,” he said.

“If a talented teachers applies to a competing district, it’s getting harder for people to make the choice to come to Newton,” Zilles said. “And it’s demoralizing.”

Hills said the system is having no problem attracting or retaining teachers.

Newton hired approximately 150 new teachers for the new school year, according to Heather A. Richards, director of human resources for the school district, about the same number of teachers hired last year.

“People come here for the innovation, culture, collaboration, and camaraderie,” she said.

Eighty-five percent of the school system’s budget, or $136 million, goes toward paying salaries, Hills said. Adding 1 percent to those salaries would cost the city $1.3 million, or roughly the equivalent of 19 starting teacher salaries, he said.

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@gmail.com.
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