He’s been a central player in Boston school affairs under two mayors and five superintendents, famously fighting against charter schools, for teacher raises, and against school closings.
On Tuesday, Richard Stutman, a lifelong student and educator in the Boston public school system, announced his plans to retire as president of the Boston Teachers Union at the end of the school year.
In an age of teacher-bashing, Stutman, who was president of the teachers union for 14 years, earned a reputation for being a tough negotiator, but not a bitter one, as he sought to protect the rights and working conditions of the union’s more than 5,000 members.
“He stuck to his guns, but he was fair,” said former superintendent Michael Contompasis, who negotiated teacher contracts on the opposite side of the table as Stutman a decade ago. “He was trying to move the district forward, while also making sure the welfare of union members was protected and supported. He did what he had to do in leading that union.”
To some, he could come across somewhat as an obstructionist, as he fought efforts to extend the school day — unless it included additional compensation for teachers — or merit pay for teachers that is linked to student test scores. Average teacher pay in Boston exceeds $90,000.
Stutman’s retirement comes at a precarious time for the union and the school system, which have been in protracted negotiations to replace a contract that expired in August. Stutman, who says he hopes talks will conclude before he departs, couldn’t resist taking a jab at the school system in his news bulletin Tuesday, blaming school-district leadership for the failure to reach an agreement.
“The school district does not want to settle the contract quickly, and the two days of negotiations we scheduled at the end of November have done nothing to change that opinion,” Stutman wrote.
In an interview, Stutman, 65, said his decision to step down was not easy, but felt the time was right. He is married to a retired Boston school teacher, Nancy, and together they raised a daughter, now 24.
He said he is disappointed about how teachers are often held in such low esteem.
“Teachers have gone from revered members of the community to primary scapegoats for a movement that wishes to privatize public education and people who wish to capitalize on that movement,” said Stutman, noting the shift began in the 1990s. “The reality is that a lot of problems in schools are caused by poverty gaps, nutrition gaps, and health care gaps.”
Many observers said Stutman’s institutional memory of the school system will be sorely missed after a long line of senior employees have departed in recent years.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh said that Stutman “deserves a very relaxing and happy retirement” after spending three decades “standing up for our hardworking teachers.”
“Even though we didn’t always agree, his heart was always in the right place and he wanted the very best for our teachers and students,” Walsh said in a statement. Superintendent Tommy Chang echoed that sentiment: “He is a true public servant and advocate for teachers and schools. His presence will be missed.”
Stutman’s roots in Boston’s school system stretch back more than a half-century. He started as a kindergarten student at the Lyndon School in 1955 and graduated from Boston Latin School 13 years later.
He returned to the system after college as a substitute teacher in 1972 and a year later landed a job as a math teacher at the Theodore Roosevelt Middle School in Roxbury, where he developed his passion for protecting teachers and students from injustices.
His assignment there came one year before Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. issued his desegregation order, and the Roosevelt was one of those schools “that was poorly treated by the district,” Stutman said. Most of the students were black or Latino and the school didn’t even have a full-time principal.
“I learned a lot about improving schools there and I learned that teachers were the best advocates for children,” Stutman said. “I never saw teacher rights as an impediment.”
In all Stutman spent 11 years in the classroom before becoming a full-time field representative for the union in the 1980s. He won election as union president in 2003 in an uncontested race.
He famously clashed with former Mayor Thomas M. Menino as well as school superintendents over the expansion of pilot schools, which operate with flexibility from union contract rules and are similar to charter schools.
Menino’s frustration caused him to support legislation that allowed for the doubling of charter school seats in Boston and other low-performing districts and also gave principals in underperforming schools the right to shake up teaching staffs.
Boston now has 16 charter schools and 21 pilot schools. The city has also seen a drop in overall enrollment, and faces the possibility of closing under-enrolled schools.
Michael Maguire, a member of the union’s executive board, said Stutman has placed a premium on transparency with the union’s members and hears out anyone with a criticism.
“He doesn’t act like a king or a dictator; he’s the guy who manages the office so I can teach,” said Maguire, who teaches Latin at Boston Latin Academy.
Through the years, Stutman never lost his connection to students. When the Boston Student Advisory Council launched an effort a few years ago to create student feedback forms on teacher performance, Stutman didn’t wave them off or block the effort, even though it was a sticky situation for students to ask to weigh in on teacher evaluations.
Instead, Stutman repeatedly met with them and went over the revisions with a teacher’s touch asking them first about what they didn’t think worked before he weighed in with his opinion, said Glorya Wornum, a recent Kennedy Academy for Health Careers graduate who was among the student leaders.
“He was always so compassionate with his words and had a heart for youth,” Wornum said. “He was very good at challenging our mind-set.”