Talks between city, teachers union hit obstacles
The head of the Boston Teachers Union, frustrated by what he calls the school district’s tactics, says he is losing hope that the 8,200-member union will reach a new labor agreement with the city by the end of summer.
“The optimism that we had . . . has vanished,’’ union president Richard Stutman said recently about meetings with School Department officials.
Stutman had said previously that the private negotiations with district officials have been slow and collegial, but said there were outstanding issues on both sides. Now, he has gone public with his frustrations.
Both the district and the union — the city’s largest labor group — had hoped to stave off protracted labor talks that have marred past negotiations with the city and dragged on for years. Teachers worked for two years without a contract before signing an agreement in August 2012. That six-year agreement began in 2010 and expires Aug. 31.
A new teachers’ contract should put the district on a path for reform to make it more competitive with charter schools in improving student achievement, said Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a fiscal watchdog group.
With the public set to vote on a ballot initiative in November that could expand the number of charter schools in Boston, Tyler said, it seems crucial to settle the contract with reforms sooner rather than later.
“Expansion of charter seats in Boston may affect the city’s ability to continue to financially support the School Department as it has, which is why school officials are pushing for reforms that support teacher quality and time on learning,’’ Tyler said. “This would require the teachers’ union to recognize that reform is their friend and that a reform contract would allow the school system to be more competitive with charter schools.”
The public spat with teachers comes amid a season of labor negotiations with the city and its employees unions. All but two of Boston’s 40 collective bargaining agreements are expiring by fall. Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who campaigned with union backing, had promised to avoid the rancor and distrust that crippled talks between the city and some of its unions.
Historically, the teachers union has successfully argued for bigger pay than the other city civilian labor groups. But during the last contract talks, the teachers agreed to a contract that gave them a 12.6 percent pay raise — the same as the city’s other civilian unions.
This year, the teachers might be seeking more pay. Boston teachers earn, on average, about $91,000 annually, according to recent school data.
The teachers union has been in talks with school officials since February, seeking to quickly work through hundreds of proposals. The district is urging significant reforms aimed at improving student achievement and attracting and rewarding more quality teachers. The union wants fair and equitable wages. Both say they want a contract that best serves students and employees.
But Stutman said the union is refusing to budge on district proposals to increase class sizes at “turnaround” schools, give the district discretion to reassign certain teacher’s aides, and not guarantee a woman’s job after she returns from a six-month maternity leave. The fact that those issues remain on the bargaining table sends the message that the district is “really not serious about settling expeditiously,’’ Stutman said.
District officials rejected assertions that those are the key sticking points. They say they remain hopeful that an agreement will be reached that “provides good outcomes for students and employees.
“It is unfortunate that BTU officials have publicly misrepresented items under discussion,’’ the officials said in a statement.
The school district’s key demands include pushing for extended learning time. It wants to protect the “mutual consent hiring” program, which gives principals the autonomy to do their own hiring based on the needs of students rather than letting union seniority rules dictate who should be hired.
Officials are also pressing to curb abuses in the district’s extended-leave policy, particularly among teachers who log long absences for a variety of reasons, including stress.
Hundreds of teachers, including many who get poor job reviews, go on leave annually, costing the district more than a $11 million and leaving students stuck with multiple substitutes, officials said.
Fiscal advocates are closely watching the teachers’ talks, which come after a string of protests over city school spending. In June, teachers held a “walk-in” to press for a fair contract that they said is good for students, good for schools, and fair to their members.