With weeks to go until the start of the new school year — and the expiration of their current labor contract — the Boston Teachers Union unveiled a sweeping package of proposals for new policies and investments aimed at upgrading aging school buildings, improving working conditions for educators, and better supporting the system’s most vulnerable students.
The union’s contract talks with the Boston Public Schools opened with an initial meeting last week, seven months after members voted no confidence in Superintendent Brenda Cassellius. Relations between the district and the union deteriorated amid the strain of extended school closures, and fraught negotiations over reopening plans, during the pandemic. The union charged the district with failing to address its safety concerns, while the union faced harsh criticism over claims it unreasonably delayed the reopening of buildings.
BTU president Jessica Tang acknowledged recent tensions, but said she expects both sides to make a fresh start, given the district’s urgent needs and a $400 million influx of federal pandemic relief funds.
“There’s no benefit to holding grudges or dwelling in the past,” she said. “We know how important this is.”
Aging school buildings, where longstanding deficiencies in ventilation systems ratcheted up teachers’ fears as the virus surged, are a focus of the union’s proposal. It calls for working fans or air-conditioning units in every classroom and yearly surveillance of ventilation systems, as well as steady supplies of classroom cleaning products like soap and paper towels.
Teachers’ struggles during the pandemic sharpened the focus on facilities, Tang said.
“We knew what the issues were before that,” she said, “but the pandemic underscored the importance of deferred maintenance, which did inhibit efforts to get our students back into buildings more quickly.”
Some of the union’s proposed improvements are startlingly basic: Extension cords in classrooms. Soap and paper towels. Outdoor space for recess, and books for school library shelves. A working sink in every school health office.
Elsewhere, the proposal advocates for staffing and programming changes designed to increase learning and support for families. Under the union’s plan, BPS would offer prekindergarten seats to every 4-year-old in Boston by 2024; hire family liaisons at every school in the city; and add reading specialists for struggling students. The union also asks for substantial investments in student mental health, including the adoption of new staffing ratios: one school psychologist per 500 students; one social worker per 300 students; one guidance counselor per 250 students. (In one sign of common ground, the superintendent’s budget plan also includes more guidance counselors and family liaisons.)
In a move to limit time spent on standardized testing — a frequent point of contention between the union and district leaders — another contract proposal would limit such testing to 15 hours per academic year.
Developed with unprecedented feedback from students, teachers, and families — including a survey of 4,000 educators and public forums held in seven different languages — the union’s proposal also would add benefits for its 8,000 educator members, who include teachers, guidance counselors, school nurses, paraprofessionals, and substitute teachers.
The proposal seeks collaboration on “creative solutions” to high housing costs for teachers, such as low-interest mortgage options; more professional development; better benefits for paraprofessionals and substitute teachers; and a program to assist union members with repayment of their student loans.
The proposal does not specify the employee salary increases sought by union leaders. The union’s current three-year contract, which expires on Aug. 31, included 2 percent pay raises for its members.
The district has not yet responded to the union’s initial proposal, according to Tang, who said a second meeting between the two sides is set for this week. In a statement, the district said it is “committed to engaging in constructive dialogue to negotiate fair and equitable working conditions” with the BTU.
“Boston Public Schools appreciates the hard work and dedication of our educators, who just completed the most challenging year of their careers,” the statement said. “We have important work ahead as we recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and come together towards our shared goal of promoting equitable outcomes for all of our students.”
Smaller class sizes are among the union’s other requests, along with more hiring of bilingual staff to support English learners in their native languages.
John Mudd, a member of the district’s task force on English learners, lamented the proposal’s lack of more specific plans to help the 4,000 English learners who also require special education, but said he was encouraged by the focus on workforce diversity.
“I would hope the School Department would have equally, if not more progressive, steps to propose,” he said.
The union also asks for the creation of a new working group to identify possible housing options for the city’s homeless students, and clearer standards for inclusion classrooms to ensure equity for students with special education needs.
Roxann Harvey, chair of the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council, said the group has not met to discuss the union’s proposal. But she expressed hope that progress can be made toward the goal of educating all students in the least restrictive setting, as required by law, while better informing families about their options.
She acknowledged the challenge of addressing every need in the union’s wide-ranging proposal. “It is a lot to navigate,” she said.