DEDHAM — Hundreds of striking teachers took to the streets Friday in this suburban town, holding placards, marching with students and parents, and cheering fresh support from high-profile Democratic politicians. Meanwhile, signs emerged that stalled negotiations could resume this weekend.
The first teachers strike in 12 years in Massachusetts followed an overwhelming vote of 275 to 2 on Thursday to walk off the job despite a state ruling that the strike is illegal. Public schools were closed Friday in this community of 25,000 people, bordering Boston.
Timothy Dwyer, president of the Dedham Education Association, called the strike “a last resort” after nearly two years of failed negotiations over salary increases, health insurance, and other issues such as sexual harassment grievances and cellphone use in the classroom.
“We didn’t want to do it,” Dwyer said outside the high school where he teaches social studies. “It’s sad. There’s a responsibility here to the town of Dedham, and the kids, and the schools. It’s a tragedy. This is not in the top 100,000 things I want to do.”
On the other side of the impasse, a negotiator for the School Committee and the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents argued that the town has bargained in good faith and that its teachers are fairly compensated when compared with nearby districts.
“The ball’s in their court,” said School Committee member Stephen Bilafer, who is on the board’s bargaining team. “We’ve worked really hard over a long period of time.”
Dwyer said he expected bargaining would resume this weekend, but Bilafer said he had no indication that would occur. The board is awaiting a counterproposal to what he called its last, best offer, he said.
The teachers also are facing legal pressure to return to work. A Norfolk Superior Court ruling Friday affirmed a previous state Department of Labor Relations order that the teachers return to work. But Dwyer said the strikers are prepared to stay out indefinitely.
“We have nothing but respect for the court, but we intend to stay on strike until we get a fair contract,” Dwyer said.
State law says that, “No public employee or employee organization shall engage in a strike’’ and that the state labor commission can “set requirements that must be complied with.’’
Earlier Friday, the strikers were praised by Representative Joseph Kennedy III, who visited the teachers at a rally outside an American Legion post. Kennedy, whose congressional district does not include Dedham, stood on the bed of a pickup truck as he addressed hundreds of cheering teachers and their supporters.
“It’s not too much to ask that your needs are going to be met,” said Kennedy, who is challenging Senator Edward Markey in the Democratic Senate primary. “In me, you have an ally, you have a champion.”
After delivering a short speech through a bullhorn, Kennedy told reporters that the teachers “are on a fight for economic justice.”
“They shouldn’t have to strike to make a case that they should be treated fairly,” he said.
Meanwhile, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a presidential candidate, lauded their efforts on Twitter.
“There is a movement of workers across the country who are taking back their power at a scale we have not seen in recent memory,” he wrote. “I stand with educators in Dedham, Mass. This takes courage.”
Teachers began picketing at 6 a.m. Friday outside Dedham’s five elementary schools, middle school, high school, and school administration office. Commuters honked their horns, strikers waved back, dogs wore union gear, and a recording of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” played near the high school.
At the rally outside the legion post, Dedham High senior Jill Scaramuzzo, 17, said she supports the striking teachers.
“They do so much for us,” said Scaramuzzo, one of three siblings in the public schools. “They should do whatever they need to do to get what they deserve.”
Her mother, Joanne, said her three children “have had a wonderful experience all the way through, and I’d like to see that continue.”
The town has nearly 2,700 students in the public schools.
The teachers and school negotiators have not met since August. But Bilafer said the School Committee is ready to meet at any time to resolve the impasse. The next arbitration session is scheduled for Nov. 19.
“If we’re all genuine, the kids should be back in their classrooms,” Bilafer said. “The community is turned a little upside-down right now.”
According to data provided by the Dedham schools, its teacher salaries ranked in the middle or higher among 41 communities in the area. First-step pay for a Dedham teacher with a master’s degree was $56,746 in 2017-18, third highest behind Boston and Brookline, according to the figures.
First-step pay for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree was $51,307, which ranked fifth behind Boston, Cambridge, Brookline, and Weston. The average salary for a Dedham teacher in 2017 topped $82,000, according to the state.
“The district does very well on a comparable basis,” said Tom Scott, executive director of the state superintendents association. “It raises questions of what the real motivation is.”
At a time when property costs are rising, the school district said it had offered a salary increase of 11.5 to 12.3 percent by the fourth year of the contract for top-step union members, and a 9.2 percent increase in base pay over four years for other teachers. Those increases for teachers below top step are in addition to an automatic salary boost of 4 percent over that period..
Dwyer said the union wants top-step members to receive a 15 percent increase, and others to get 12 percent. About half of union members are at the highest step on the pay scale, Dwyer said.
In a coffee shop on Dedham Square, Kathleen O’Neil and Melissa van Hamme prepared to walk to the rally at the legion post. O’Neil, a Town Meeting member, and van Hamme, a former town employee, were steadfast in their support of the teachers.
“If you want your children educated in this town, why wouldn’t you want your teachers to have more resources,” van Hamme said.
Earlier this month, school officials said that implementing the union’s requests “would create a gap that could not be met within current budget parameters and property tax levels set by the town.”
They said they were charged “with finding a balance between what our budgets can sustain year over year and what our teachers so rightfully deserve.”