Belchertown teachers, district come to terms

  • Belchertown teachers and their supporters rally on Main Street in Belchertown Nov. 18, 2016. Gazette File Photo

Published: 6/9/2017 10:51:13 PM

BELCHERTOWN — After almost a year without a new contract for workers, Belchertown teachers and their school district have agreed to tentative terms, though custodial, secretarial, food service and paraprofessional bargaining units continue to negotiate their own contracts.

The teachers’ union agreed to a contract with the district on Monday, according to Lawrence O’Brien, a social studies teacher who serves as a grievance officer and executive board member with the Belchertown Teachers Association. The contract now heads to the Belchertown School Committee, which is likely to approve that contract when they meet on Tuesday.

Details of the contract will be announced after it is ratified.

That approval would end negotiations that have gone on for some 16 months and required the intervention of a state mediator. Workers have been without a new contract since July 1.

“I’m thrilled, I’m just glad that we were able to work through what were really minor points,” School Committee Chairman Michael Knapp told the Gazette. “But we just had to bear down and communicate effectively.”

O’Brien also praised the conclusion to the long negotiating process, but said the focus is now getting a new contract for those other bargaining units, which typically make less money than the teachers.

“As far as I’m concerned, until we settle for all units, we’re not settled,” O’Brien said.

Neither side discussed the issues around custodial, secretarial and food service workers’ contracts as negotiations continue, but because paraprofessionals and the district have entered into mediation, O’Brien said he was able to provide details about some of the sticking points.

Both Knapp and O’Brien blamed rising health care costs as one major problem.

O’Brien said the administration wanted members to contribute more to their health insurance coverage without a sufficient cost-of-living increase to cover those costs.

“It would have led to members losing some money in the first year of the contract, losing more money in the second year of the contract and going off a cliff in the third,” O’Brien said. “The fact of the matter is that these are some of the lowest-paid workers in any district, and we can’t afford to have them losing money.”

Knapp said he can sympathize, and that paying rising health care costs has an impact on the district as a whole.

“It is a force that has to be grappled with from both the employee and the employer side,” he said. “This is really a problem for all of America.”

O’Brien mentioned that the district wanted to eliminate a past practice clause on the paraprofessional’s contract, which requires bargaining before an employer can change a longstanding workplace practice. He also accused the district of wanting to get rid of a clause that allows employees to defend themselves if they feel they’ve been unjustly disciplined.

Knapp didn’t get into those specifics, but said he’s optimistic about smoothing out the issues currently snagging negotiations with paraprofessional workers.

“The good thing about mediation is that there is a trained labor attorney that goes between the two groups and really facilitates the conversation,” Knapp said. “It’s really a good thing.”

“It’s for the good of the students, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said. “And honestly, I think both sides have that in mind.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.




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