ANDOVER — Andover Public Schools’ 10 campuses shuttered Friday as more than 800 teachers in the district went on strike to protest stalled contract negotiations with the School Committee.
A sousaphone bearing the message “Settle the Contract” provided the soundtrack for hundreds of educators, joined by dozens of students and parents, who picketed in the Town Common Friday afternoon, filling the lawn in front of the Andover Town Offices.
Many held signs that read, “Andover Educators on Strike!”, “I’d rather be teaching, but this is important”, and “Pay IAs a living wage!”
Hundreds of educators in Andover Public Schools are on strike today demanding a fair contract. The union says there has been little to no movement toward an agreement after more than 9 months of bargaining @BostonGlobe @GlobeEducation pic.twitter.com/ofxRdRTHkh— Niki Griswold (@nikigriswold) November 10, 2023
The Andover Education Association, the union that represents more than 800 educators in the district, voted overwhelmingly Thursday night to go on strike in protest of the lack of agreement on a new contract with the School Committee after more than nine months of negotiations. One of the highest priority demands is a significant raise and improved benefits for instructional aides in the district, whose starting pay is $19.26 an hour, or $25,000 a year. The union describes the wage as “far below what is considered a living wage for the region.” The maximum an instructional aide in the district can make is $38,000 a year, according to the union.
Jay Hudak, who has worked as an instructional aide in Andover for 20 years, said Friday that while a raise for her and her colleagues is essential, the strike is about more than just the money.
“There’s just such disrespect for what we do... I’ve often said, ‘Why don’t you just come into our room and spend a day, walk in our shoes, just follow us and see what we actually do?’” Hudak said. “People have two jobs, and they’re like, ‘Well, who cares? That’s not our problem.’”
Among the union’s other demands are across-the-board raises for teachers, protections for educator prep time, longer lunch and recess periods for younger students, expanded paid family and medical leave, and more educator input in curriculum decisions.
“In Andover traditionally, this has been a lighthouse district for public education,” said Julian DiGloria, an eighth grade social studies teacher in the district and the union’s vice president. “We want to keep it that way. We are doing this to keep it that way.”
A coalition of 23 other local unions issued a statement of support for the Andover Education Association and the strike, and several attended Friday’s protest in a show of solidarity. Andover teachers, union leaders, and instructional aides shared testimony with the crowd, as did several parents and students in the district.
“I am absolutely appalled that our school committee has dragged our teachers through the mud for the last 10 months in negotiations since January,” parent Maura McCurdy Santiago said to the rally-goers, wiping tears from her eyes. “On behalf of every parent in this town, I am so proud of all of the teachers here today for standing up for themselves and for making the most heart wrenching decision to go on strike today. These teachers deserve more.”
“The things that our teachers have done support us through the years of COVID, all these crazy times in our lives, is truly inspiring, and now’s our chance to stand up for them. So we will carry on that spirit. Educators, we students stand with you,” said Mitran Kumar, a 17-year-old junior at Andover High School.
It is illegal for public employees, including teachers, to strike in Massachusetts. However, that has not stopped teachers unions in Brookline, Woburn, Malden, and Haverhill from going on strike in recent years. In Andover, teachers went on strike in 2020 over concerns about safe working conditions during the pandemic, which the state’s labor relations board ruled was illegal.
In a statement released Friday, a representative for the School Committee announced that the Commonwealth Employment Relations Board at the Department of Labor Relations ruled Thursday that the Andover educators’ strike violates the law, and the School Committee intends to take further legal action to force the union to end the strike.
“We want to make it clear that the School Committee does not condone the illegal actions of the AEA,” said Tracey Spruce, chair of the Andover School Committee, in a statement to the community Thursday. “We will work with the Department of Labor Relations to minimize the disruption to our students’ education. We urge all teachers and staff to return to school. We urge the AEA to end their illegal strike and return to the bargaining table.”
But union leadership refused to back down Friday despite facing the prospect of facing significant fines if the strike continues in violation of the court order.
“What the district is looking to do is obviously punish us for standing up for our students and for ourselves,” said DiGloria. “And frankly, there wouldn’t need to be any fines, a strike wouldn’t need to happen, if the school committee would bargain in good faith and give us a fair, reasonable offer. The school committee can end this today.”
The School Committee’s most recent proposal includes raising the starting salary for an entry-level instructional aide to $32,889, and $42,137 for a senior-level instructional aide, after three years. It also offers to raise starting-level teacher salaries to $58,870, which would be a 23 percent raise, and top-level teacher salaries to $118,882, an 11 percent raise, after three years.
DiGloria said those terms are not acceptable for the union, which wants to see the minimum salary for instructional aides raised to $40,000 a year, and a 16 percent raise for all teachers across the board, rather than increases targeted primarily at the lowest and highest paid teachers in the district.
“They’re trying to divide our union by doing that,” said DiGloria. “We want (the 16 percent raise) across the board for everyone, everyone’s entitled to the same cost of living adjustment.” Housing costs in Andover are notably high, with the median home value at $900,000, compared to $591,000 across the state as a whole, according to Zillow.
According to state data, the average teacher salary in Andover in 2021 was just over $94,000, though the district’s lowest-paid teachers make tens of thousands of dollars below that amount.
Andover Public Schools will remain closed for the duration of the strike, the district announced Thursday, though sports and theater rehearsals will be allowed to continue.
Representatives of the Andover Education Association and the School Committee returned to the bargaining table at 2 p.m. on Friday, with negotiations led by a state-appointed mediator. Late Friday night, the union released a statement saying that the session ended without an agreement, and negotiations will resume on Saturday.
Union representatives said they hope to reach an agreement with the School Committee over the weekend so educators and students can return to schools on Monday.
“We don’t take this lightly,” said DiGloria. “We want to be in school and we want to be with our students, and we want this over and the school committee has the ability to do it.”
An earlier version of this story misstated the average teacher salary in Andover in 2021 and misspelled Santiago’s name.