Nine campuses in the Brookline public school system were closed Monday and hundreds of educators picketed after negotiations with the School Committee over the weekend failed to reach a deal on a new contract.
At Brookline High School, teachers marched and chanted in front of the school wearing red Brookline Educators Union shirts and signs declaring, “Brookline Educators on Strike.”
Strikers picketed at all the district’s nine schools Monday morning and converged for a rally at Brookline Town Hall in the afternoon.
Public employees including teachers are barred from striking under state law and the action was enjoined, or prohibited, by a judge Sunday. The union could face penalties including fines for violating the order. The district will have to make up all missed days due to the strike. Teacher strikes in Massachusetts are rare, but not unheard of. Brookline teachers struck on a professional development day in 2020 over coronavirus safety concerns, while in 2019 Dedham teachers went on strike over issues including pay, health coverage, and sexual harassment policies.
The Brookline Educators Union, which represents over 1,000 educators, said its Thursday vote to authorize a strike comes after three years of negotiations with the School Committee but with little agreement. Among their asks, the educators are seeking pay increases, better working conditions, recruiting and retaining educators of color and underrepresented backgrounds, and daily 40-minute periods of “duty-free time,” which would allow them time to conduct preparative work outside the class without disruptions of other school duties.
The average Brookline teacher made just over $100,000 last year, according to state data, although salaries range by more than $50,000 between the lowest- and highest-paid teachers. The School Committee has proposed a 6 percent increase from Sept. 2020 to Aug. 2023. Union representatives, however, said that proposal is not enough to make up for inflation — which was 8.5 percent for the year ended March 2022.
“We’re tired,” said Graciela Mohamedi, a ninth-grade physics teacher and the union’s community relations chairwoman. “We feel the district’s been balancing their budgets on our backs.”
But the picketers Monday morning mostly focused on working conditions and diverse staffing.
Eric Schiff, a high school guidance counselor and the union’s negotiation chairman, said educators are striking because they want a contract and daily preparation time to meet the needs of students.
“We’re tired of our demands falling on deaf ears,” he said. “This is a resourced district.”
History teacher Jen Martin said students need teachers who represent the diversity of the student body.
“The timeline is now, the timeline was years ago,” Martin said. “When you want to work on racial equity, you can’t just go with the status quo.”
More than 100 teachers and their supporters on Saturday also rallied outside town hall in support of the union as negotiations stalled. That night, the School Committee declared an impasse after nearly nine hours of talks; another attempt late Sunday afternoon was futile.
The School Committee said in a statement Monday it was “profoundly saddened by the closure.”
“Our primary concern is the impact on Brookline students and their caregivers,” the committee said. “We are seeing and hearing of children’s anxiety about this situation, magnified by memories of what they face during extended pandemic school closures. Our most vulnerable learners, including students in special education and those with disabilities, are disproportionately impacted by school closures; for some food-insecure students, school is where they receive their only meals. Caregivers are having to make emergency preparations for childcare.”
The committee is “working to address all community concerns in real time as much as possible,” it said.
It is unclear how long the work stoppage will last, but in a letter to families, Superintendent Linus Guillory said the district would make an official announcement about any additional school closures no later than 6 a.m. Tuesday. However, union members are preparing for the possibility of a long-term strike, the union’s president, Jessica Wender-Shubow, told The Boston Globe over the weekend. Another meeting between the union and the School Committee — plus a mediator — is planned for 5 p.m. Monday, and educators said they remain hopeful a resolution will be found.
“We promise we’ll get back in school soon,” Mohamedi said. “We were hopeful Saturday. We were hopeful yesterday. We’re hopeful today.”
Eric Schiff, a guidance councilor and the union’s negotiations chair, said, “We’re tired of our demands falling on deaf ears. This is a resourced district.” He called for daily prep periods, common prep time, cost of living raises and recruitment and retention of diverse staff. pic.twitter.com/Kmd2LJ0UtC— Christopher Huffaker (@huffakingit) May 16, 2022
The School Committee on Sunday said in a statement that allocating the requested preparation period for every teacher would have “substantial logistical and financial implications,” and countered by offering teachers lacking a prep period “the opportunity to address their concerns to their direct supervisor, with an appeal to the superintendent, if necessary.”
Union representatives said the counteroffer was insufficient.
“The reason it’s on the bargaining table is that’s either been done or hasn’t been effective,” Schiff said.
The School Committee also proposed a joint labor-management committee on prep time and forum with educators and the superintendent to address issues of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.
Beyond specific bargaining points, teachers complained about how long it has taken to reach a deal — on this contract and on prior contracts.
“We’re striking because for the past two-plus years we’ve been working without a contract,” said Martin, the history teacher. “To me anyway, this strike is about a decade of not having a contract on time.”
This is not the first time teacher preparation time has been at issue in a heated contract dispute, as the burden of the pandemic has led to widespread burnout. In Tewksbury, elementary school teachers won an additional 45 minutes of weekly prep time in March in exchange for a weekly lunch duty, after a drawn-out public campaign that included teachers “working to rule,” or only performing contractual duties.