The teachers union in Lawrence has filed two labor complaints against the state-run city schools, contending that receiver Jeffrey Riley is violating Massachusetts law by refusing to negotiate the terms of a new contract.
The state took control of the struggling public school system in 2012 and plans to implement wholesale reforms starting with the next school year, including a new performance-based salary structure and extended school days.
Education officials say that under the state’s 2010 education reform bill, Riley is authorized to make the changes outside collective bargaining. But Frank McLaughlin, president of the Lawrence Teachers Union, said Riley and the state are overstepping their bounds.
“The receiver is giving himself absolute power to make all decisions regarding the state of education in Lawrence, power the law does not grant him,” said McLaughlin.
The takeover followed years of poor academic performance and marked the first time the state had assumed full control over a local school district. Under the 2010 law, the education commissioner can alter contract provisions to “maximize the rapid academic achievement of students,” giving the receiver far more authority than superintendents.
Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said the Legislature made a point of giving education officials broad powers to overhaul chronically poor schools.
“I think the statute is quite clear, and that’s exactly the authority we are exercising here,” he said.
The labor complaints mark the first time the landmark 2010 law has been challenged, and if upheld could have far-reaching implications in the debate over the role of teacher unions in reforming poor public schools.
McLaughlin said Lawrence teachers have gone three years without a new contract, and he accused administrators of not bargaining in good faith. Teachers unanimously voted to take legal action at a meeting earlier this month.
The complaints were filed with the state Labor Relations Board, which will investigate the matter. If an investigator determines there is probable cause of a violation, the case goes to a hearing.
McLaughlin said teachers have been increasingly discouraged, and they believe that the receiver is effectively dismantling their rights as a union.
“He’s exceeded his authority,” McLaughlin said Monday. “He’s trying to take away all of our collective bargaining rights, and this was not the intent of the Legislature.”
Chester said that under the law, the receiver can make changes to the compensation structure without the union’s approval and said he was not surprised by the complaints.
“I anticipated the changes we’re implementing in Lawrence would make many people uncomfortable, especially those with a vested interest in the status quo,” he said.
Riley said the education overhaul law was enacted to “make possible the very changes happening in Lawrence today.”
“This became the first and still the only community in receivership because it failed too many students for too long, and dramatic new approaches are needed,” he said in the statement.
Riley said administrators have asked the union to work with them on various efforts, but were rebuffed.
“Not only did leadership refuse to participate, they chose to litigate to preserve a failed system,” he said.
In the two complaints, the union says the receiver is failing to bargain in good faith and created a new stipend program for teachers without bargaining.
Chester said the new pay scale will reward the best teachers and will increase pay across the board. On average, salaries will rise $3,000, he said.
The new merit-based system is a marked departure from the traditional “step and lane” approach, in which raises are largely determined by years of service.
“A new teacher could be at the top of the scale within five years,” Chester said.
The state education board will discuss the receivership in Lawrence at its regular meeting Tuesday.
McLaughlin said teachers broadly support the effort to improve the schools, but said the union needs to retain its rights.
“We’re open, we’re reasonable,” he said. “But there’s a clear anti-union agenda here.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this story also contained numbers on the Lowell school system. The numbers were not essential to the story, and they have been removed so as to not create confusion with the data on Lawrence.