Union urging ‘no confidence’ votes in ed commish Riley
MTA dials up heat over state push for in-person learning
THE DEBATE OVER whether to reopen schools for in-person instruction is turning into an all-out war by the state’s largest teachers union against state education commissioner Jeff Riley.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association is encouraging its local chapters to adopt votes of “no confidence” in Riley’s leadership in the face of a renewed push by Riley and state leaders for schools to reopen.
MTA president Merrie Najimy led a Zoom meeting last night attended by several hundred union members in which the no confidence motion was front and center. To date, four MTA locals — Westford, Haverhill, Malden, and Melrose — have adopted the declaration. “We have no confidence in the judgment or professional leadership capabilities of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and its Commissioner Jeff Riley,” it reads.
Earlier this month, Riley, Gov. Charlie Baker, and Education Secretary Jim Peyser urged districts to resume in-person learning as the state restructured its formula for determining COVID-19 risk. Under the revamped formula, officials said, only Chelsea, Lawrence, and Revere have positive test rates high enough to warrant fully remote classes.
Baker and top education officials have argued that schools have not been shown to be a source of COVID-19 transmission. Meanwhile, they say, students who were already struggling academically will pay the steepest price from continued remote learning.
“Data collected from school districts across the US, of which we now have several months’ worth, shows schools can open and operate safely in person,” Baker said at a November 6 briefing.
“We know nothing can take the place of in-person instruction,” said Riley. “The time to get kids back to school is now.”
Baker and Riley were joined at the briefing by Dr. Mary Beth Miotto, vice president of the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, who backed the safety of in-person learning, while also highlighting the downsides of ongoing remote learning for children.
Riley has long pursued a path of working with unions, not battling them.
When he was put in charge of the state-ordered takeover of the chronically low-performing Lawrence public schools, Riley had sweeping power over district personnel — he has said some urged him to fire all the teachers and start over. But he elected to retain 90 percent of the teaching staff and focused instead on bringing in new principals, saying the teachers had suffered under poor leadership. His collaborative approach even earned a visit from Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
But he has run head first into leaders of the MTA who have taken a more combative approach toward state education officials in recent years. The union is pushing to upend the state’s education accountability system, and it is now going hard at Riley over his call to reopen schools.
In a statement Wednesday morning, Riley lit into the union. “As local school committees, superintendents, parents and students have experienced, the MTA‘s leadership has gone to absurd lengths to deny the scientific evidence that in person learning is safe and backed by the medical community,” he said. “While the union engages in baseless attacks, we remain committed to children’s education and the best interests of staff, students and families.”
Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, questioned whether the MTA move might backfire.“I think it’s counterproductive,” he said. “Sometimes when you attack someone you not only demonize the target, but you demonize yourself. I think everybody pretty much sees this for what it is — an opportunity to kick the nearest shin. It may actually make their target look better.”