After 18 months of negotiations, a short-term contract was agreed upon by the city of Boston and the Boston Teachers Union. Both parties lauded the two-year deal as a big win. In reality, it was mostly a one-sided victory for the teachers, who received a solid pay increase, but made no meaningful concessions. The biggest losers? Students at lower-performing schools who deserve a system that helps weed out unwanted educators and brings in fresh talent.
The contract, which still needs to be ratified by the union’s 6,500 members, includes a 2 percent retroactive pay rise for the past school year and a 3 percent raise for the upcoming year. It also expands the paid parental leave benefit and provides for the hiring of more school nurses.
More critical is what the contract doesn’t address. Unquestionably, the one issue screaming for reform is that of the tenured teachers who land in the “excessed pool” and are unable to find a lead teaching position but still get a paycheck. The city was seeking the ability to discharge these teachers after a reasonable period of time, while the union wanted to protect their jobs.
Going into the new school year, there will be, at last count, 87 teachers who were not hired for a primary teaching position, but are being assigned to other teachers’ classrooms or in another suitable professional capacity. The majority of them landedin this category for the first time, while three of them haven’t been able to find a leading teaching position for the last three years.
Why did Walsh sign a contract without reform? The answer seems to be politics: The agreement looks like an attempt to contain any potential political fallout in a mayoral election year.
The union did agree to eliminate a provision that required the department to pay an extra $1,250 stipend if it bypassed veteran teachers in favor of outside candidates for jobs that required a special skill. Sam Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau and a longtime analyst of the city’s finances, observes that getting rid of the stipend amounts to savings of half a million dollars. “But it’s still going to cost over $8 million to pay for the teachers not selected by schools,” he said.
Those are meaningful dollars in a cash-strapped system in urgent need of bold changes. According to the latest available data from last year, there are about 27,000 Boston students in schools classified as Level 3 or lower. “Those are too many kids in Level 3 schools that need quality teachers if they’re ever going to be successful,” Tyler said. “The one recourse to achieve reform is the teachers contract.”
Indeed, with Walsh having relinquised most of the city’s leverage, it’s unclear how the school department gains the upper hand to push for the needed changes. As a former labor leader, perhaps Walsh doesn’t truly have the heart to support a mechanism for phasing these teachers out of the system. His rationale for signing this contract might have been political, yes, but it also buys him time to come up with a different compromise — maybe the teachers leave on their own, maybe there’s a way to find them jobs elsewhere.
Meanwhile, those 27,000 or so students have returned this week to their low-performing schools. Don’t they deserve better from the Boston Public Schools? Unions naturally protect their membership; it’s supposed to be up to elected officials to make sure it doesn’t come at the expense of the students.