The teachers waiting for a contract

INTRO TEXT

When school committee members take out a newspaper ad claiming that teachers are overpaid and underworked, it’s a pretty good sign that contract negotiations aren’t going well. Indeed, Agawam teachers were still without a contract months after the November 8 notice in the weekly Agawam Advertiser. That broadside charged that high-school teachers spend just four hours a day in front of a blackboard, 183 days a year–making for an hourly wage of $62.23.

The ad was “extreme,” says Teresa M. Kozloski, a former teacher and one of two Agawam School Committee members who did not sign it. Kozloski says that her four colleagues were venting their frustration over the lack of progress in contract talks, but she adds, “It was just terrible to say that teachers work for [only] four hours a day. The backlash it created may not go away.”

The dispute in Agawam may be one of the stickiest standoffs, but at least 16 other Bay State school districts hadn’t settled their teaching contracts covering the current school year by late January. Although the points of contention vary from district to district, money is almost always the bottom line, according to Andy Linebaugh, spokesman for the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

“How to attract and retain teachers is a universal issue,” says Linebaugh.”We have to pay them, that’s number one.”

But for school districts, it’s one issue among many. Financial pressures on school districts–including the rising costs of health insurance for employees, transportation, and special-education services–are bad enough, but uncertainty over the future of state aid puts everyone in a “tough spot,” says Glenn Koocher, president of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. With the recent economic downturn, teachers who had not already finalized their contracts by last September are finding it more difficult by the day to win increases in salaries and benefits.

That hasn’t stopped them from asking. Union officials say the education-reform push coming from the state has made schoolhouse life difficult, and those difficulties have spilled over into contract negotiations.

“What we’re into in ed reform is a lot of change,” says Edward Coyle, western regional manager of the teachers union. “Classroom change, school administration change, and it’s difficult for everybody–for administrators, teachers, and students, because you have people in Boston making decisions, which are very general in nature. They’re interpreted by the media and by taxpayers, and when they’re actually manifested in the classroom, it becomes a source of tension for the employer [the school district] and the employees [the teachers].”

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As of late January, Agawam’s school committee and its teachers union had gone into mediation. The committee had offered a pay raise of 11.5 percent over a three-year period, but teachers were pressing for 13 percent. (Agawam’s teaching force is relatively old, and instructors are keeping in mind that their retirement plans will be based on the salaries they earn in the last three years on the job, Kozloski notes.) Still without a contract, teachers were “working to rule”–kind of a classroom version of a factory slowdown–by not volunteering for extracurricular activities. And all parties were hoping for a settlement.

“That’s demoralizing for everyone, including the students,” says Kozloski. “So there’s no good in prolonging it.”