Boston parents, advocates, and watchdogs praised the city’s tentative contract with the Boston Teachers Union for including measures that would benefit students, such as guaranteeing a full-time nurse in every school and significantly increasing the number of licensed mental health providers.
But some said those measures didn’t go far enough in meeting the social, emotional, and physical well-being of the system’s approximately 55,000 students, especially after years of budget cutting by individual schools with declining enrollments.
“While it significantly helps in repairing some of the damage, our Boston public schools overall are in dire need of financial support to get them where they need to be [in order] to provide an equitable education for all students,” said Ruby Reyes, director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance.
The NAACP said it wished the union hadn’t needed to compromise on its quest to secure full-time mental health providers for every school and questioned whether the 2 percent annual pay raises were high enough to keep pace with the increasing living costs in the Boston area.
“We absolutely need to find a way to make sure our young people have access to the mental health counseling support they need in their school buildings, so they can reach their full learning potential,” said Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP. “Our young people for many reasons experience trauma, whether it’s as result of violence, proverty, social pressure, immigration, or racism.”
The tentative agreement calls for 23 additional licensed mental-health providers, a move that would ensure that more than half of the system’s 125 schools would have these positions. The agreement also includes a commitment by the city to support funding for programs for homeless students and creating a citywide coordinator to identify outside partners to help students living in poverty. That endeavor could include bringing mobile optometry and dental services to a school.
The teachers union and the Boston Public Schools reached agreement Thursday night, ending more than a year of talks. The two sides took a different approach to the negotiations this time around — identifying areas of mutual interest — and devised measures to address them. In announcing the agreement, both sides emphasized measures that would directly benefit students.
Union members are scheduled to ratify the three-year agreement on June 12, and the Boston School Committee is expected to vote a week later. The City Council needs to approve funding.
City Council President Andrea Campbell said on Friday she looked forward to reviewing the agreement.
“I’m excited that this new contract prioritizes student health and mental health by adding new nurses and mental health specialists to our schools,” she said in a statement.
Mary Battenfeld, a member of Quality Education for Every Student, a grassroots parents group, said she was glad to see the proposed increases in nurses and mental health providers, noting “it’s something that has been under invested in for too long.”
She also said she liked that classroom aides, whom she described as under-paid and who often play a critical role in supporting students with special needs, would receive an extra increase under the deal. That proposed increase — $1 to their hourly rate along with the across the board 2 percent raise — would increase the average pay for a basic classroom aid from $36,400 to $39,000, according to the school department.
“Overall, it seems like a good step forward for a more equitable allocation of resources,” she said. “The agreement is already building trust in the community.”
Carolyn Kain, chair of the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council, said the agreement appears to benefit both educators and students. She said she appreciated that it would limit the number of students with disabilities in each classroom to 50 percent, a move that would allow teachers to meet the individual needs of all students in their classrooms.
And she said she is pleased the tentative agreement would establish a working group to identify best practices for schools integrating students with disabilities into general education programs, but emphasized that any collective bargaining agreement should not constrain the rights students have gained under federal and state laws.
“You really need — in a district like Boston that serves over 11,000 students on [individual education plans] — to be able to develop different models for inclusion that is responsive to the needs of the students,” she said. “We have made some definite progress with special education in BPS, but we have a lot issues to address and doing it in collaborative way with stakeholders, including parents, will ensure all voices are heard.”
Pam Kocher, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a watchdog funded by business and nonprofits, said the tentative agreement’s emphasis on addressing student well-being was a good move.
“We know that additional supports will be helpful for students, but BPS’ ability to serve students would fare better if the agreement included other provisions,” she said, such as tying compensation to job performance and substantially increasing learning time.