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OPINION

Like ‘Seinfeld,’ Newton teachers strike was about nothing

The agreement has few real differences from Newton School Committee’s prestrike proposals.

Students returned to the classroom on Feb. 5 at Lincoln-Eliot Elementary School after the Newton teachers strike was settled.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

The Newton School Committee and Newton Teachers Association recently reached an agreement that ended an unprecedented 11-day teachers strike. The illegal strike was harmful to our community, especially for students and their families.

However, it was a good agreement for Newton’s teachers and the Newton Public Schools. The agreement has few real differences from the School Committee’s prestrike proposals. Like “Seinfeld,” the television show about nothing, this strike was essentially about nothing. Union leadership appears to have gained little if anything from the illegal strike, despite local and state celebratory press communications.

This calls into question whether the painful strike was about a larger misguided political agenda, not primarily about compensation and working conditions for Newton’s teachers. As a former chair of the Newton School Committee and its collective bargaining team, I regularly negotiated with the union. Negotiations were usually difficult and protracted, but this time the union seems to have avoided an agreement prior to beginning its illegal strike only to ultimately accept terms nearly identical to Newton’s prestrike proposals.

For example, most additional contract costs are typically from increases in cost-of-living adjustments. This is the annual increase that members receive in addition to automatic annual step increases. About half of Newton teachers receive step increases of greater than 4 percent, and all receive additional COLAs. The agreement included four-year COLAs of 12 percent (12.6 percent compounded), including 8 percent in the first three years, with aides receiving a small additional COLA. The School Committee’s prestrike offer had the same 8 percent COLAs for years 1 through 3 with a minor change in the calculation methodology. That proposal was made on Dec. 18, a month before the strike began. The agreement also added a fourth year of COLA which would have otherwise been negotiated as the first year of the next agreement.

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Additionally, the NTA demanded certain requirements on school staffing, while the School Committee wanted the superintendent to continue making those staffing decisions. The School Committee also wanted more flexibility for the superintendent to make time and learning decisions, which are important in organizing the school day, including meetings and other common time. The final agreement had no reductions in the superintendent’s ability to make staffing decisions and increased her flexibility to make time and learning decisions.

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The agreement also had a change in parental and family leave. The School Committee agreed to pay for a few additional days and expanded use of accrued sick time. But the key provision models the benefit after the Massachusetts Paid Family and Medical Leave Act, which enabled Newton to limit its cost in certain circumstances to 50 percent of the daily rate (not 100 percent). As a result, Newton’s cost is only slightly higher than the cost of its prestrike proposal.

The agreement on these key issues had few if any serious cost differences from the School Committee’s prestrike proposals. There are several lessons from this disastrous and pointless 11-day illegal strike.

First, leadership matters a lot. Newton’s key leaders were Mayor Ruthanne Fuller and School Committee chair Chris Brezski, with other committee team members participating in negotiations. These leaders identified core priorities, including financial sustainability to avoid layoffs and flexibility for the superintendent to manage certain key issues.

The mayor did what was needed, making clear what was financially available and that the new contract must be sustainable. She provided substantial new funding that the city could afford and worked closely with the negotiating team. Brezski led the negotiations, showing flexibility and determination to reach an agreement that ensured core priorities would be met. The leadership provided by Brezski and Fuller brought Newton a good agreement substantially similar to the School Committee’s prestrike proposal costs.

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Second, many school districts have positive and productive relationships with their teachers unions and can work closely together in reaching agreements. But some do not, and it’s up to the school committees to act in the best interest of their students and school systems and not reach agreements that are financially and managerially disastrous.

Third, other school committees, including those on the so-called strike list, face upcoming contract negotiations. As horrible as this strike was for Newton, city leaders believed a financially unsustainable agreement leading to years of layoffs would be much worse. They were determined to reach a fair and sustainable agreement, and they did.

Fourth, local and state teachers union leaders should stop engaging in illegal strikes before inflicting damage on yet another municipality. Real harm is being caused to our communities from additional post-COVID learning loss, bitter divisions in the community, and expensive disruptions to families being able to work. Existing legal remedies must be used to prevent more damage from illegal and immoral actions such as this teachers strike.

When it comes to future teachers strikes, Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren and Representative Ayanna Pressley — who doesn’t represent Newton in Congress — should not support illegal activities as they did in Newton. This is a collective bargaining dispute about small cost, not a serious civil rights protest, and no one should pretend otherwise.

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Lastly, the Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations and the Commonwealth Employment Relations Board (its appellate body) must consistently seek compliance with the law. After CERB twice went to court for fines against the NTA, cynicism and dysfunction in Newton ran rampant as different parents vied to fill the vacuum left by CERB’s unwillingness to go to court again. It got worse when CERB suddenly called for binding arbitration, which is not part of this process, just when an agreement was finally within reach. This was bad policy and terrible process that prolonged an illegal and harmful situation.

The vitriol, distortions, and ideological propaganda and fabrications around education issues are corrosive and detrimental. The state is at an educational crossroads as it seeks to recover from COVID-19 learning losses and widening achievement gaps. Our communities and education leaders need productive engagement and not ideologically motivated destruction.

The future of education in Massachusetts depends on adults navigating together with the best interest of students and schools in mind. Let’s be hopeful that we can meet this challenge with the same success that our state has achieved for decades as a national education leader.

Matt Hills, a former chair of the Newton School Committee, is vice chair of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

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