The School Committee and teachers union in Stoughton are once again embroiled in tough, tense contract talks that have stirred a series of charges and countercharges of bad faith, with no end in sight.
Teachers have filed complaints that are pending with the state Department of Labor Relations over unpaid step raises, while the district says there is a good reason for that: It intends to change the step-raise system such that it will take teachers longer to reach the top pay rung.
The union has also complained that the district intends to unilaterally change its sick leave policy and that it has docked teachers’ pay for leaving school even a few minutes early — charges the district disputes. Teachers are also angry that the schools returned about $780,000 to the town’s general fund at the end of the fiscal year — money they said should have been spent in the classroom.
While the phrase “work to rule” is not yet being used to describe the stance teachers have taken, both sides agree that some tasks teachers used to perform on the job are now no longer being done.
For the district and the teachers, it is, as Yogi Berra used to say, déjà vu all over again.
Many in the union remain upset the schools returned money to the town that they contend could be better used by the district.
In 2010, the School Committee, while embroiled in similar contract talks with teachers, awarded Superintendent of Schools Marguerite Rizzi a four-year contract extension. The union, 121-6, voted “no confidence” in Rizzi’s leadership after the extension and urged the committee, unsuccessfully, to overturn its vote.
At its Oct. 8 meeting this year, the committee added another year to the end of Rizzi’s pact, again upsetting the teachers union during tough times.
“I can’t speak for the entire committee, but that’s the way I saw it,” School Committee chairwoman Joyce Husseini said in explaining her vote. “I know the union doesn’t think anyone should have a new deal before they get one, but in the recent state evaluation of the district, they pointed to the strength of the district’s administration.”
The 350 members of the Stoughton Teachers Association have been without a contract since Aug. 31, and annual step raises are a huge sticking point.
Under the old contract, teachers receive 14 step raises with an average increase of 4.9 percent, in addition to any contracted annual raises. Teachers already at the top pay scale can receive longevity bonuses. The district is proposing 19 step raises with an annual 3 percent increase, eventually arriving at the same place but in five more years.
Husseini said if a teacher’s new step is less than his or her current step, the teacher would be moved to a higher step so “no one would make less money than they are now.” She said starting salaries for new teachers would also be increased by 10 percent, to $44,000.
But union president Andrea Pires said earlier this month that under the proposal 86 of 110 salaries on the teachers’ pay scale would be reduced.
“This is yet another example of the district disrespecting teachers by failing to honor its obligations,” Pires said in a prepared statement before the Oct. 8 School Committee meeting. A large number of teachers attended the last two committee meetings, on Oct. 8 and Oct. 22.
Pires said the committee’s proposal would lead to greater teacher turnover and drive young teachers away from the district.
The union has also accused the district of trying to change sick leave policy, after Husseini called sick leave abuse by union members ”rampant” in a prepared statement in September.
Husseini later withdrew the remark and apologized for it, saying she was relying on faulty data. She said that there are a few teachers who may have been abusing the policy, and that principals who see a pattern developing will warn teachers.
“Before this, there was no mechanism for documenting patterns of possible abuse,” Husseini said.
At the Oct. 8 meeting, Pires cited instances of what she said were teachers being docked an hour’s pay for leaving school a few minutes early for a doctor’s appointment or a family issue.
But Husseini said in an interview that a teacher invoking the state Small Necessities Leave Act triggered paperwork that was never needed before in such a case. It was resolved when the union agreed not to invoke the law, she said, and no teacher who left early has been docked any pay. She said the decision to allow teachers to leave early for a family emergency or doctor’s appointment continues to lie with principals.
The two sides also disagree over whether teachers have changed their work habits, although neither side is calling it “work to rule.”
Pires said teachers are arriving early and staying late, continuing to write college recommendations, working with school PTOs and the Stoughton Public Schools crisis team, and giving extra help, but would not volunteer for “certain committees or teams” because of actions the district has taken.
Husseini said teachers are within their rights to refuse committees that meet after school hours, but that some were not participating in data teams, literacy teams, and building-based support teams held during school hours.
Many in the union, meanwhile, remain upset the schools returned money to the town that they contend could be better used by the district.
“Teachers are concerned that the School Committee returned over three-quarters of a million dollars to the town when we cannot find aides for the classroom to meet the critical needs of our students,” said Pires.
Husseini said the district returned the $780,000 in unspent funds because of several factors: There were fewer out-of-district special education placements; a line item for legal fees went unspent; contingency funds built into the budget were not needed; and the absence of a business manager for much of the year led the schools to spend conservatively.
She said that, except for some special education spending, schools are not allowed to carry over any unspent funds into the new fiscal year and that none of the unspent money was in the area of salaries or benefits.
The two sides are not formally scheduled to negotiate again until Dec. 11.
Husseini said she is optimistic, noting the district has reached agreement with six other school unions, including administrators and principals.
In a prepared statement read at theSchool Committee meeting Tuesday, Pires said union members believe all stakeholders in the Stoughton schools have to get together to mold a functional school system.
“The dysfunction must stop,” she said.
Rich Fahey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.