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Amid leadership transition, labor tensions grow in Boston Public Schools

"After this very difficult year, our educators really deserve a good contract," said Jessica Tang, head of the Boston Teachers Union.Jim Davis

Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius is facing growing labor unrest amid prolonged contract negotiations with the district’s most powerful unions, the teachers and the bus drivers, raising questions about whether deals will be reached before her departure.

School officials have revealed little about what they are seeking in the contract proposals, but they are under immense pressure from the state to overhaul schools with low standardized test scores, resolve systemic problems with special education and English learner programs that are causing many students to flounder, and get school buses to run on time.

Yet Cassellius and the School Committee have canceled several negotiating sessions recently with the Boston Teachers Union, frustrating leadership and members. The union also is outraged over a proposal that would increase pay each year by 2 percent or less during the course of a three-year contract, calling it “insulting and insignificant.” (Teachers would also receive one-time bonuses of $1,000 and paraprofessionals would get $500.)

More than 5,500 teachers union members have signed an online petition urging the School Committee to make negotiations a priority, and the union reiterated that plea in its bulletin Tuesday, writing, “We’re entering our eighth month without a contract or consistent negotiations.”


School officials had been hopeful about an imminent deal with the Boston School Bus Drivers Union, but talks took an unexpected turn for the worse two weeks ago, when the union’s negotiating team told members to reject what was supposed to be a final offer.

“The membership should send us back to the negotiating table for more economic justice and rights, including respect for our members who need to retire and deceased members,” the team said in a flier before a March 31 membership meeting.

The school system’s transportation contractor, Transdev, which is handling the negotiations with guidance from BPS, expressed disappointment with the subsequent vote against the offer.


“After almost a year of bargaining, we presented the union with a last, best, and final offer at their request,” the company said in a statement, noting it “not only addresses operational needs regarding the timely and safe transportation of students, but also provides our employees with significant economic enhancements. We are disappointed with the outcome of the vote and hope they will reconsider.”

The contract disputes are heating up as the state is conducting an unexpected review of the school system, sparking concern the state might try to seize control.

The state review has added to the high-profile tasks that Cassellius is racing to complete before she leaves in June, which also includes ushering a $1.3 billion budget proposal through the City Council and preparing high schools for more rigorous graduation standards and, in some cases, the addition of seventh and eighth grades.

Cassellius expressed confidence she could get the tasks done.

“My commitment to BPS, our students, families, educators and staff has not wavered,” Cassellius said in a statement. “There is indeed much work to do over the next few months to ensure we solidify the strong foundation this leadership team has laid, a foundation that will position the next superintendent for success.”

Union contract negotiations in Boston Public Schools often drag on for months or years. The current agreements with bus drivers and the teachers expired last summer, although bus drivers received a temporary extension that expired in November.


The talks follow separate and tense negotiations for a variety of smaller agreements during the pandemic, such as establishing work conditions around online learning and eventually COVID-19 safety measures. The Boston Teachers Union in December 2020 voted no confidence in Cassellius over school reopening.

Leadership turnover also has complicated talks. Since negotiations began, the power at City Hall has shifted from acting mayor Kim Janey to Mayor Michelle Wu, while a majority of seats on the seven-member School Committee, appointed by the mayor, have turned over since last summer.

Although BPS has canceled negotiating sessions recently with the teachers union, the School Committee has been meeting in executive session to strategize. Talks with the teachers union finally resumed last week. Cassellius briefly addressed the negotiations last Wednesday, saying, “we continue to make progress.”

But Jessica Tang, the union president, and other members offered a sharply different perspective when they presented the School Committee their petition and delivered passionate testimony.

“We went through two extremely difficult years and we deserve the proposals that will be brought to the forefront,” said Melanie Miranda, a paraprofessional. “It is imperative that we continue to receive adequate support in all areas so that we can exceed expectations, not just a promise of what’s to come but an actual contractual agreement.”

Aside from disagreement over salaries, the teachers union and BPS differ on how best to serve students with disabilities and those learning English fluency, two years after the state ordered BPS to overhaul those programs.


BPS wants to place more students from those groups into general education classes, which would require teachers to secure two or more additional certifications to teach them and could result in an extremely wide range of skills among students in a classroom.

Consequently, the teachers union is pushing back and wants classrooms to be staffed with the appropriate number of educators, which could include paraprofessionals and a second teacher.

The union also is raising concerns about new proposals the school district presented last week.

Those proposals, according to the union’s website, include eliminating a requirement to have paraprofessionals in classrooms that serve both students with disabilities and general education students and removing limits on the maximum number of students who can be assigned to a classroom. Instead, the district wants to set “targets.”

Currently, caps on class sizes in the contract range from a maximum of 22 students in kindergarten to 31 in high school. Caps on programs specifically for students with significant disabilities and those learning English can be smaller. If the district exceeds those limits, teachers can receive additional pay in some cases or request additional support, such as a paraprofessional.

Some of the union’s proposals include hiring more psychologists, guidance counselors, social workers, librarians, and other specialists, such as for art, music, and science.

“All the proposals are very reasonable asks . . . they would do a lot to improve our schools,” Tang said in an interview. “And after this very difficult year, our educators really deserve a good contract, and if we want to retain our educators — there’s a lot of concern right now about teacher shortages — we have to have a contract settled very soon.”


The bus drivers union, which didn’t respond to requests for comment, raised a number of issues with last month’s contract proposal in the flier they distributed and criticized the company for “prematurely and inappropriately” mailing the contract offer to the homes of members.

The negotiating team said in the flier that it would update members during their March 31 meeting “on discussions with Mayor Wu regarding the cruel, discriminatory treatment of school bus drivers concerning our retirement rights, unfair retiree caps, severance pay, deceased members rights to retirement severance, etc.”

The negotiating team also touted its victories, including a 5.1 percent pay raise in the first year of the proposed deal.

“But we believe we are entitled to more, and there is more,” the flier stated.

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