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Local teachers union elects Salem instructor as new president

Salem Teachers Union leader Beth Kontos was elected President of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts at their annual convention this weekend.
Salem Teachers Union leader Beth Kontos was elected President of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts at their annual convention this weekend.The Boston Globe

A union leader and history teacher at Salem High School who was elected as the new president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts Saturday said better funding for schools and less emphasis on standardized testing are among her priorities.

Beth Kontos, 58, of Danvers, defeated Thomas Gosnell, of Winchester, who served in the position since 2006, at the group’s annual convention in Quincy Saturday.

Massachusetts is terribly underfunded in the poorest cities and towns, Kontos said in a phone interview on Sunday.

“Educators and their students across the state face underfunded schools, continued privatization efforts, and a flawed accountability system that rewards endless test preparation at the expense of deeper learning, and measures poverty more than it measures progress,” Kontos said in a statement. “I’m not afraid to use my ‘teacher voice’ to stand up for educators and students who just want the support they need to teach and learn.”

Redirecting money away from standardized testing and investing in paraprofessionals and smaller classrooms would allow for more personalized instruction, she said.

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“What needs to be done in Massachusetts is ... minimizing the high-stakes testing,” Kontos said in the phone interview. “We spend millions of dollars to test and then individual districts spend so much money preparing for tests. It’s just out of control. We could be having more reading teachers and more math tutors and more counselors. All the things our students really need. More art. More music.”

She said she plans to emphasize member engagement and full funding because it’s difficult for teachers to do their jobs without having all the tools they need.

“We must fight for full funding of public schools, libraries, and higher education,” Kontos said in the statement e-mailed early Sunday. “Our students need joyful learning environments, and our schools need sensible accountability systems that are about support, not punishment. Together, we can give all students the support they deserve, ensure that our schools are fully funded and staffed, and bring a sense of joy back to teaching and learning.”

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Over two days, the convention focused strongly on the underfunding of schools around the state, with speakers including US Senator Elizabeth Warren and president of the national American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, according to Steve Crawford, spokesman for the local federation.

An estimated 300 teachers attended the convention at the Marriott in Quincy, according to Crawford. The local federation of teachers represents more than 25,000 public school employees, higher education faculty and staff, and public librarians.

Kontos has worked at Salem High School since 2005, taught history as an adjunct professor at North Shore Community College from 2009 to 2014, and has served as the president of the Salem Teachers Union since 2014.

She said she was inspired to study history as a result of the stories she used to hear from her four grandparents about immigrating to the US from Greece.

A Salem State University graduate, Kontos holds a bachelor’s degree in history and with a minor in Spanish and a master’s degree in history, both from Salem State. Previously, Kontos had worked as a computer programmer and a Sunday school teacher.

Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, expressed appreciation in a statement Sunday to both Kontos and Gosnell for their contributions and leadership.

“Among our members there is both widespread gratitude and appreciation for Tom’s tremendous legacy and track record of successful advocacy, and also strong enthusiasm and support for Beth’s vision moving forward,” Tang said in a statement. “These are two great leaders who like their fellow educators throughout the union are truly committed to the best interests of students and families across the Commonwealth.”

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Cristela Guerra can be reached at cristela.guerra@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.