Amherst-Pelham teachers contract ratified after long struggle

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 07-13-2023 3:20 PM

AMHERST — Following at-times contentious negotiations and mediation over the past 18 months, a new three-year contract for the Amherst-Pelham Education Association, whose members include teachers, paraeducators and clerical staff, has been ratified.

The Amherst Regional School Committee voted 8-1 in executive session Wednesday to ratify the deal that extends from July 1, 2022 to June 30, 2025. The vote follows approval of the contract by the three bargaining units who work for the Amherst, Pelham and regional schools.

Aspects of the contract include cost-of-living increases of 3% for each of the three years; paraeducators in their first year of work starting at $18.33 per hour and going up to $20.55 on July 1, 2024; and the top step for paraeducators increasing to $28.79 an hour.

The contract also calls for annual merit-based monetary awards for paraeducators, 12 weeks of accrued time for parental leave, and a significant reclassification of clerical staff, offering an additional 5-10% increase for those in the lowest-paid category.

The committee ratified the contract by an 8-1 vote in executive session, Committee Chairman Ben Herrington said, though he didn’t specify how each of the members voted, with five from Amherst, two from Pelham and one each from Leverett and Shutesbury.

“I think it’s sufficient to say we ratified the contract,” said Amherst representative Allison McDonald.

Amherst representative Jennifer Shiao was the lone member to vote against going into executive session, despite a recommendation from committee attorney Marc Terry to do so. Shiao said she believes the public has a right to know how members voted.

How members voted, and any discussion, would come from the meeting minutes.

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With this contract settled, McDonald, who with Pelham representative Sarahbess Kenney was a lead negotiator, said the committee will now have to make hard choices going forward, including possible spending cuts due to the cost increases associated with the contract and possible declines in student enrollment.

“It will be difficult, and it will continue to be difficult,” McDonald said.

Amherst representative Peter Demling said the committee might consider informally asking teachers union leaders about a more expeditious process next time.

He also worries about the so-called fiscal cliff, expenses increasing more than funding available from the four member towns, and not having more federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund grants to support the budget.

“It’s hard not to look at this contract and be concerned about the cost implications,” Demling said.

He worries the contract could prompt what he terms “six figure” budget cuts and people losing jobs in the elementary and regional schools in coming years.

Demling also asked that rhetoric and attitudes be better the next time around. He contends there was criticism that member towns and committee members don’t care about the well-being of staff.

“If we all don’t work together to focus on what is actually going to improve the fiscal situation, which is working with our state representatives to fundamentally improve the equity of state funding,” Demling said.

Shiao, though, said she would like to see teachers union continue to use its collective voice. “I hope that they continue speaking loudly and sharing with the community about what’s important for them,” Shiao said.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman, who sat in on the executive session along with Douglas Slaughter, the temporary superintendent, expressed appreciation for McDonald and Kenney for leading the negotiations.

“Thank you for all that work,” Bockelman said.

Herrington also thanked the APEA’s negotiating team for the time they spent, and praised everyone for reaching a contract conclusion.

“It restores my faith in humanity a little bit the fact that we actually got through this,” Herrington said. “It didn’t seem like we were going to at certain points.”

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