Lawrence teachers push for bargaining rights

Union official says state overstepped authority

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

Union officials urged lawmakers to restore collective bargaining rights to Lawrence public school teachers, arguing the state education commissioner and state-appointed receiver overseeing the turnaround of city schools have overstepped their authority and trampled on teachers’ rights.

Frank McLaughlin, president of the Lawrence Teachers Union, told lawmakers on the Public Service Committee Tuesday that Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester and receiver Jeffrey Riley have “silenced” teachers’ voices, and are unilaterally making decisions that affect the school system without teacher input. The union has not had a contract in three years, and has two unfair labor practice filings before the state Labor Relations Board.

“Teachers are in the classrooms every day with children, and who knows better what our students need than their teachers?” McLaughlin said.

Union officials supported a bill (H 2227) filed by Rep. Christine Canavan of Brockton, saying it would restore collective bargaining rights at school districts designated as “chronically underperforming” by the state.

The two lawmakers who co-chair the committee said they voted in favor of the 2010 Achievement Gap Act that increased the education commissioner’s authority to turn around troubled schools, and are personally “inclined” to not interfere with implementation of reforms authorized in that law.

Lawrence is the only school district in the state currently in receivership. Riley, the state-appointed receiver, has all the powers of the superintendent and school committee and reports directly to the state education commissioner.

The state took over the Lawrence schools in November 2011, after decades of systemic failure, poor test scores, and low graduation rates, according to Chester. Before the state took over, Lawrence schools ranked among the lowest in the state on MCAS scores and only 52 percent of the students graduated from high school in four years.

Riley began implementing a turnaround plan in May that requires Lawrence students to spend more time in the classroom. Starting this school year, all Lawrence public schools are required to have a minimum of 1,330 school hours, adding 160 hours to the school year.

With the achievement gap law, the Legislature gave the education commissioner and any state-appointed receivers “a little extra authority” to turn around underperforming school districts, according to Ed Doherty, the chief negotiator for the Lawrence Teachers Union from the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts.

If the commissioner or a receiver determines one or more sections of a collective bargaining agreement pose an impediment to the turnaround they can override it, Doherty said. He said Chester and Riley have applied that one sentence to all the bargaining rights of Lawrence teachers.

“They have completely and absolutely used that one limited sentence to take away all the collective bargaining rights of teachers in Lawrence,” Doherty said.

Chester said he understands the union is not happy that the district is in receivership, but disagreed with union officials’ characterization that he and Riley overstepped their authority and ignored teachers’ rights.

“The only shot we had in achieving rapid improvement on behalf of students was implementing a turnaround plan that was going to deliver better results,” Chester said.

He said state education officials have been respectful of the union during the entire process, and expressed concern about making any changes to the law. He said he cannot imagine the school district would have made as much progress without the authority given to education officials.

“Any moves to back off the Achievement Gap Act would be a huge step backward and be very unfortunate just at a point in time when we are seeing some outstanding progress in Lawrence,” Chester said.

Under current law, the commissioner may recommend altering and negotiating changes to hours, compensation, or working conditions of school employees in underperforming or chronically underperforming schools. Negotiations must be completed within 30 days of the commissioner’s decision, and the law establishes guidelines for bargaining.

The legislation backed by the teachers unions gives some decision-making power back to superintendents in underperforming schools.

The bill would give the school superintendent the authority to alter compensation, hours, or working conditions. The superintendent could request the union reenter negotiations to accommodate the changes, according to a summary of the bill. It then would allow the state education commissioner to review the recommendations of the superintendent and the union.

Tom Gosnell, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, said teachers need to be part of the conversation in turning around struggling schools plagued by poverty.

“If teachers are worried about their basic rights being taken away, and have had them taken away in places like Lawrence, that can’t be productive,” he said.

Gosnell said lawmakers made a mistake by rushing the achievement gap law to passage in order to meet a deadline to become eligible for federal Race to the Top funds. Because of the “haste,” the law sacrificed rights of educators to have a voice in school reform, he said.

Sen. William Brownsberger of Belmont, who cochairs the committee, said he thinks the 2010 law was good legislation.

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“I do think we did the right thing in 2010. I’m not at this point, personally, I’m just speaking for myself, inclined to change the rules,” he said after the hearing.

Committee co-chair Rep. Aaron Michlewicz of Boston said he also voted for the 2010 law “and I have seen it work very well in Boston with many underperforming schools having dramatic turnarounds.” He added: “I would like to see it continue to move forward and see how it develops.”