The contract between the Boston Public Schools and the Boston Teachers Union expired in August, but anyone curious about the issues at play or the state of negotiations finds him or herself left in the dark.
In a recent meeting with Globe columnists and editorialists, Mayor Marty Walsh was reluctant to say anything about the ongoing contract negotiations. Spokeswoman Laura Oggeri noted later, via e-mail, that “at the onset of the negotiations, both BPS and the BTU agreed to ground rules prohibiting either side from publicly divulging details of contract discussions.”
That has largely been Walsh’s style as mayor. A former labor union official, he prefers to stay mum about labor negotiations. In this case, however, that’s a counterproductive strategy. Even if contract negotiations weren’t bogged down — and they certainly seem to be — it’s important for a mayor to lay out, publicly, the things he hopes to achieve in a new contract, to explain why they are important, to make it clear, periodically, whether progress is being made toward those goals. BTU can then make its case public as well, if it so desires. That’s hardly a betrayal of the negotiating process. Rather, it’s letting the public, in whose name all this is being done, in on the process. Similarly, as he runs for reelection next year, Walsh needs to let Boston citizens know what he hopes to achieve in terms of educational changes if reelected.
The Boston Municipal Research Bureau has highlighted some of the district’s contract needs. For example, BPS must be able to discharge the teachers who, after a certain period, can’t find a lead teaching post. Currently the city is spending around $10 million a year to employ teachers who aren’t the primary teacher in a classroom, money that could be spent in far more effective ways. In previous contract talks, BPS and the BTU had discussed tying pay more to performance and ability and less to a teacher’s length of employment and level of education. Other districts are moving in that direction. Progress is needed on that in Boston as well.
In fairness, Walsh has been able to accomplish something that his predecessor could not: He has gotten an agreement that will extend the short Boston school day for elementary, middle, and K-8 school students. That said, the 40-minute expansion is relatively modest, particularly compared with the extra learning time that charter-school students get, and, in part because of cost, its implementation thus far has been limited to fewer than 20 schools. Walsh says the longer day will take effect in another 39 schools next fall. That means virtually all BPS elementary, middle, and K-8 schools will have some form of longer day.
BPS has also made some noteworthy progress this year. Graduation rates hit an all-time high of 71 percent. Twelve schools have jumped to the top performance level, while another nine pulled themselves out of Level 3 (low performing) status.
Still, more than half of BPS’s 125 schools, serving more than 27,000 students, are rated low or underperforming. What’s the plan for improvement, and how will the new contract advance that? City Hall simply won’t say whether progress is being made on those issues or any others.
“The city feels strongly that the Boston Public Schools and the Boston Teachers Union will reach a fair contract that will benefit students,” was all Oggeri would offer, via written statement.
Let’s hope so. But in light of credible reports that talks are stalled, the lack of any kind of public progress report is worrisome. Here’s a glimmer of good news, however: Walsh says he won’t kick tough educational choices, such as the need to right-size a district that currently has excess building and teaching capacity, down the road because of next year’s election.
“I don’t have the luxury, and the kids of Boston don’t have the luxury, of me putting their future on hold because I am running for reelection,” he said.
Those are encouraging words. Voters should hold the mayor to them in 2017.