Unions to school committees: Ditch mediation and return to negotiating table

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 03-06-2023 1:11 PM

AMHERST — A speech language pathologist at the regional high school says an unsettled employee contract is the latest in a litany of frustrations she and her colleagues have had to grapple with this academic year — a comment echoed by many of the 75 people who last week pleaded with the regional school committees to ditch a mediator and talk to union negotiators face-to-face.

“Our children are struggling, our teachers are struggling, we need to communicate, and it is inequitable to fathom not paying adequately for this work,” said Amy Kalman, an Amherst resident and parent in addition to an employee at Amherst Regional High School.

Kalman told the Amherst and Amherst-Pelham Regional school committees last Thursday that this academic year has been rough for students, some of whom are hurting, in crisis and ill equipped to ask teachers and staff for assistance, exhibited by fires in set in a high school bathroom last September.

“I appreciate that your intentions are good, but what I feel is there’s a failure to communicate,” Kalman said.

“I’ve never seen a School Committee that’s not willing to meet with us for negotiations,” said Liz Elder, a fifth grade teacher at Wildwood School, who said teachers are being asked to do more and more with fewer resources.

They were among numerous staff calling for an end to mediation and a return to the negotiating table as the committees held hearings for the proposed fiscal 2024 budgets for Amherst’s elementary schools and the regional schools. Both budgets call for reductions in the workforce, in part due to project enrollment drops.

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Members of the Amherst-Pelham Education Association filled a portion of the high school library, many dressed in red and holding signs reading “Support Amherst Educators” and often applauding as a number of speakers took the microphone to speak directly to the committees. The latest action came as the union last week began a “work-to-rule” initiative that limits what teachers do outside work hours, as they continue to be employed under the terms of an expired contract.

Amherst School Committee Chairwoman Allison McDonald said that a recent four towns meeting, with Shutesbury and Leverett joining Pelham and Amherst officials, indicated that the union’s contract demands can’t be met in next year’s budgets.

“There was no possible way that they could consider going beyond the guidance,” McDonald said.

“I appreciated the directness of the towns in communicating that,” said Amherst representative Peter Demling.

Demling said millions more for salaries are being sought and would have to come from better state support. He observes that $3 million is being lost to charter schools.

“One of the things that is extremely important for the School Committee to communicate is that the mechanism that funds our schools at the region and what the limitations are on that funding and where it comes from,” Demling said.

The teachers union has asked for 3.25%, 4% and 5% cost-of-living adjustments for most of its members, and 6% for paraeducators. This makes up for the burden of increased health insurance costs and years of cost-of-living adjustments that haven’t kept up with inflation. The union argues it is effectively taking a huge pay cut when the School Committee’s highest offer was 2.5%

The School Committee’s last offer was for a cost-of-living adjustment of 2.5% in fiscal 2023, year one of the contract, 2.5% for next year and 2% in the third year. The offer also calls for increasing the starting pay for paraeducators by 3.9%; that increase, plus the 2.5% cost of living would mean the starting pay for paraeducators this fiscal year would be $18.25 per hour, among the highest starting pay in the region.

Many of the union members cited a continued communication breakdown that has predated the current negotiations, pointing to the fiscal 2021 contract, when teachers willingly took 0.6% cost-of-living increase so that paraprofessionals gained a $1 per hour increase in their salaries.

Chris Herland, a high school English teacher, said almost every contract he has been part of has felt like “a kick in the teeth,” and that an 8% health insurance premium has meant “no increase has ever kept up with the rate of inflation.”

The allusions to being hit in the face were also made by middle school teacher Mick O’Connor.

“Over time the School Committee has offered contracts that do feel like a kick in the teeth,” O’Connor said.

A 17-year educator who lives in Pelham, O’Connor said he would gladly pay higher taxes to have quality schools. and that the lack of dialogue is troubling.

“You are not treating us respectfully,” O’Connor said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.]]>