Amherst teachers rally for contract resolution


Staff Writer

Published: 01-09-2023 10:13 PM

AMHERST — As students at the Amherst Regional Middle School boarded buses to take them home Monday, teachers, paraprofessionals and other staff marched toward Chestnut Street to draw attention to the expired contract under which they have been working this year.

With continued frustration over the Amherst and regional school committees using a mediator to reach a deal, and with the first mediation session since fall scheduled for Monday evening, members of the Amherst Pelham Education Association made their appeals for a new contract.

“We are hoping the School Committee will come back off this with face-to-face negotiations and with a respectful offer,” said Mick O’Connor, a civics and geography teacher and member of the union’s contract action team.

The union’s action at the middle school, as well as the high school and the four elementary schools in Amherst and Pelham, served as a preview of members’ next step, which could be abiding by only the responsibilities they have outlined in the contract. That so-called work-to-rule initiative would be another visible sign of the apparent impasse in reaching a new contract, similar to union members wearing red on Fridays.

“Our refusal to do extra will mean things don’t get done, unless they want to do it themselves,” O’Connor said.

Jennifer Jensen, a civics teacher who also serves on the contract action team, said for her such action might mean doing no work outside the normal day, curtailing development of a new civics course she is developing — an unfortunate outcome, as she has a love for teaching and her students.

“We’re hoping for some kind of compromise and for them to come back to the negotiating table,” Jensen said.

In a statement in advance, the union wrote about the situation: “The district and the profession often puts demands on educators to work beyond their contracted work hours, so the APEA wishes to make a small demonstration of the impact their efforts have on the functioning of the schools.” The simulation of work-to-rule would be a response to the school committee refusing to meet in person and the use of “lawyers, who are expensive to the taxpaying community.”

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No mediation session has been held since Nov. 22, though a mediation session scheduled for Nov. 30 was canceled at the request of the union.

Amherst educators have been working under an expired contract since the beginning of the school year. The sides have been in negotiations since January 2022.

Mediation was sought by the Amherst and Regional school committees after a complaint of unfair bargaining practices was filed against the union.

Amherst School Committee Chairwoman Allison McDonald, who chairs the negotiation committee, said Monday that she hopes a new contract can be reached that is good for APEA members and that Amherst and the other regional communities, Pelham, Shutesbury and Leverett, can afford.

“We look forward to continuing to work with the APEA in mediation toward a fair and affordable contract,” McDonald said.

The committee has put out information showing that its latest proposals to the union would mean an $846,500 increase in compensation in the first year, or $34,000 over the budget that is available.

That proposal includes annual cost-of-living adjustments of 2.5%, 2.5% and 2% for all three units, teachers, paraprofessionals and clerical staff, as well as other changes, such as paraprofessionals getting an extra 50 cents per hour for certain responsibilities, and an increase in minimum pay from $17.13 per hour to $17.80 per hour

The average seniority increase for teachers of 3.9%, paraprofessionals of 4% and clerical staff of 4.3%, all would remain in place.

O’Connor said the proposal, though is “measly, and frankly disrespectful” and some of the paraprofessionals noted that they have Section 8 vouchers, rely on food stamps and also go to the Amherst Survival Center for groceries.

The last proposal from the union would mean an increase in compensation of $2.02 million in year one, which is $1.21 million over the available budget, It would mean cost-of-living increases for teachers and clerical staff of 3.25%, 4% and 5%, while 9%, 4% and 5% would be the cost-of-living increases for paraprofessionals. A series of other requests are also embedded in the proposal.

McDonald said some of the confusion about how much money is available for contracts relates to appeals the union has made to use Amherst free cash to support the schools and to provide better compensation. The challenge is that the other regional towns would have to take on similar financial burdens, which may not be possible.

The union is also asking people sign a petition to the school committees that calls on them to promptly settle a fair contract with the union and address an increasing staff turnover. That petition is on the APEA website.

“Our students deserve great schools and our educators deserve fair wages and working conditions,” the petition states.

“Our educators shouldn’t need to rely on food stamps to feed their families. APEA educators deserve reasonable wages that keep up with inflation.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at]]>