It’s the Boston political issue no one seems to want to talk about. And yet it’s one that will have great impact on the city’s 52,000 public school children in the next few years.
It’s the imminent negotiations for a new contract with the Boston Teachers Union since the current one expires at the end of August.
The contract is about many things: money, of course, but also power — who calls the shots about job security, how many consecutive minutes educators can teach, class size, teacher staffing requirements, and many other workplace stipulations that may seem arcane but in aggregate reflect the clout of the BTU. The union, with its 7,500 active members, is a force to be reckoned with. It could tip the scale in a close mayoral election.
Perhaps that’s why candidates for mayor don’t want to touch the contract issue; so much so that none of them brought up the topic directly at a recent candidates forum on education co-hosted by the BTU. Acting Mayor Kim Janey and the school committee could, in theory, complete negotiations with the union before the preliminary election in September, but that would amount to an unusual exercise of appointed power — an unelected mayor making a call that would have an impact for years to come. It would also require the cooperation of former mayor Marty Walsh’s appointees to the school committee — no sure thing.
Indeed, because the next mayor and her or his school committee will surely be in charge of negotiating and signing a new multi-year agreement, the lack of attention to the educators’ contract in the campaign feels irresponsible.
“I deeply believe that the teachers’ contract is a community issue that affects families and students … and should be debated and discussed in public, not just decided behind closed doors,” said John Mudd, a longtime public education advocate. Yet the contract negotiations almost always happen out of the limelight. They also typically drag on for months.
The city and the BTU usually go “several months to a year or so after the expiration date before they actually negotiate a new contract,” said Sam Tyler, retired president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau and an expert on the city’s finances. (Before the current contract was ratified two years ago, negotiations had been going on for more than a year.)
Boston teachers are among the best paid in the country. During the 2018-’19 school year, they made an average of $104,525. Only two other districts in the Commonwealth, Concord-Carlisle and Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical (a regional high school based in Lexington) have higher average salaries for their teachers. Jessica Tang, president of the BTU, said conditions of school buildings are one of her members’ priorities for the new contract, which she hopes to begin negotiating as early as this month, she told me in an interview. “The [coronavirus] pandemic really exposed just how dire the physical facilities are in so many of our schools,” she said. Another priority the union gleaned from member surveys is adequate staffing in every school for social emotional learning and mental health support.
According to education observers, a probable focus of the proposed new contract — currently more than 250 pages — will be determining teaching conditions in inclusion classrooms, where students who receive special education services learn alongside students who don’t. During previous negotiations, the district was “committed to avoiding unintended consequences of incorporating restrictions on special education programming into an employment agreement,” according to a statement from BPS at the time. Instead, an inclusion working group was created, but the pandemic interrupted the group’s nascent work. Tang wants to bring the topic back. “Our vision is that all students with disabilities … will be educated in the least restrictive environment with appropriate staffing,” she said.
There are many different models as to how inclusion can be done in the classrooms, and experts and school leaders say the answer depends on the special needs of the kids. “Under the guise of inclusion, there’s a danger of ‘dumping’ [students with disabilities] without adequately trained staff and adequate supports,” Mudd said. “We have one of the highest percentages of special education students.” And then there are the 4,000 English learners with disabilities. “Their joint needs are ignored. They are the lowest performing group in Boston,” said Mudd. That’s why these vulnerable groups should be a priority in negotiations.
And yet, “I have not seen what the key issues are that the superintendent thinks should be raised, or even that there is a package on those issues,” Mudd said. A BPS spokesperson said the district is in the process of outlining priorities for the contract and that they are in a normal place to be in terms of getting ready for negotiations this summer.
Another contract issue could be “mutual consent” hiring, or when principals decide whom to hire. It’s been a game changer for school leaders and has led to an increase in teacher diversity. According to the district, more than half of teachers and guidance counselors hired last year were educators of color. Mutual consent has been controversial since its inception because some people think it leads to an unnecessary vilification of tenured teachers who are not hired by principals. Local education reform observers fear it could be on the table this time.
And then there’s the hot topic of the roughly $400 million in federal stimulus money coming to the district. At the education forum, Tang asked candidates if they believed the recently received federal education funds should be targeted “to hire more staff, including teachers, therapists, and interpreters to secure smaller class sizes.” All said yes except for Acting Mayor Kim Janey. Her argument is fiscally responsible: Once the federal funds run out, there won’t be any money to continue supporting those hires.
To its credit, the BTU is doing a much better job than the district in consulting with the public about the contract. The union recently held virtual community forums and offered interpretation services in Arabic, Spanish, Haitian Creole, Cantonese, and others. One of the meetings was dedicated to students. Their priority? Hire more teachers of color and implement a curriculum that reflects their own racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Taxpayers, parents, and students in Boston deserve a full conversation about the contract issues — including the mayoral candidates’ plan for the new contract — before a new agreement is signed.