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OPINION

Boston teachers’ demand for a contract reveals the leadership gap at BPS

A lame-duck superintendent — Brenda Cassellius — shouldn’t be in charge of negotiating the teachers contract right now. The incoming district leader deserves a chance at it.

Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, addressed parents of color, gathered at the Massachusetts State House, who were protesting their exclusion from the discussion of school reopening policy.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Another casualty of Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius’s early departure, one that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention until this week, has been the teachers contract negotiations.

As the Globe’s James Vaznis reported, the Boston Teachers Union is outraged and concerned that the School Committee and district officials have canceled several contract negotiating sessions in the last two months. Though the parties resumed meetings last week, the BTU is not happy with the district’s proposals and that it’s been nearly eight months “without a contract or consistent negotiations,” wrote the union in its bulletin to its members on Tuesday.

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As much as I sympathize with frustrated teachers who have been waiting months in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic to sign a new contract, long negotiations have been a typical occurrence in recent years: BPS and educators have gone a few months to a year or so after a contract expires before they finish negotiating a new contract, as I reported in an earlier column. The BTU is circulating a petition, signed by more than 5,500 people, to push the School Committee to prioritize contract talks.

But a lame-duck superintendent — Cassellius — shouldn’t be in charge of negotiating the teachers contract right now. The incoming district leader deserves a chance at it.

The union categorically disagrees. “Our students can’t wait,” said Jessica Tang, the BTU’s president. “All of our proposals are student-centered. They cannot wait to ensure there are social workers, family liaisons, art specialists, librarians. . . . These [contract] talks are absolutely the best way we are able to get our students what they need.” Tang refuted the “misguided and stereotypical view that we’re advocating for teachers when in fact, if you look at our proposals, they’re all about our students.”

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That’s why, Tang said, some of the union’s proposals are about housing justice, school facilities, and climate. “We’re advocating for so much more beyond what people realize,” Tang said.

That may be true, but it raises the question: Is the contract really the best vehicle to tackle bigger policy issues at a citywide level? Isn’t it the mayor’s job to ensure that?

Edith Bazile, a former educator and past president of the Black Educators’ Alliance of Massachusetts, said that teachers contracts are complicated, and that’s why it takes a long time to negotiate them. “I think that if a contract is signed [now], that will tie the next superintendent and won’t give them the chance to make changes they deem necessary,” said Bazile, who, even though she is retired, is a member of the BTU. “Cassellius is currently AWOL . . . and for her to make a high-stakes decision of resolving a contract . . . may not be in the best interest of the next superintendent.”

So does that mean negotiations have to be put on hold until a new superintendent is chosen? Not necessarily — there is another way, according to Meg Campbell, a former Boston School Committee member and longtime educator, and Bill Walczak, the community activist who ran for mayor in 2013. They are suggesting an “interim team of two experienced, retired educators” to tackle the district’s most pressing issues and stabilize them, including the teachers contract. They’re thinking of someone like Michael Contompasis, a former BPS superintendent, to be part of that team. (Spoiler alert: Contompasis told me he’s not interested.)

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Campbell believes it’s best to delay the search for a new superintendent by a few months and have the interim team “clean up.” That way, Walczak said, you also get a better chance at attracting talented candidates for the permanent position.

The teachers contract is not the only incomplete assignment at BPS. “There’s the transportation system, the principals and administrative staff who are leaving in droves, the inability to get admission decisions out to families, and the drop in enrollment,” Walczak said. Contompasis said the exodus of school leaders — “there are about 15 or 16 principals leaving,” he said — is very concerning. “Why are they leaving?”

Many will dismiss such dire assessments of BPS as alarmist, pessimistic, or both. I call it on-point. Meanwhile, for Tang and the union, waiting for a new superintendent to sign a new contract seems like a lot to ask, but it’s a bigger ask to have the remnants of outgoing leadership negotiate a far-reaching contract in the midst of a search for the public schools’ next leader.


Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.