Guest columnists Greg Reynolds and Jesse Porter-Henry: Educator pay and benefits should align with community values

Hampshire Regional High School

Hampshire Regional High School GAZETTE FILE PHOTO


Published: 01-15-2024 7:01 PM

Saying that we were moved barely begins to describe how we felt on Jan. 8 when student after student spoke on educators’ behalf at the Hampshire Regional School Committee meeting. Current students, recent grads now in college and those who are into their careers took the time to attend a School Committee meeting to explain the value of the education provided by their Hampshire Regional Education Association educators.

It was impossible not to feel proud as these compassionate young citizens eloquently expressed how their teachers nurtured them, pushed them, and made them believe in themselves.

It was truly a bright spot in an otherwise bleak year for Hampshire Regional educators.

The members of the HREA have been in negotiations for a new contract for more than a year. That means that wages and benefits are effectively frozen, and the School Committee has been unwilling to address the damaging impact of low wages on both educators’ morale and ability to afford to keep teaching in a school many of us have loved working at.

This may not sound like a big deal to people outside of our school community. But we need people to understand that what Hampshire Regional educators are experiencing — and feeling — is a snapshot of a crisis unfolding in public schools across the state and across the country. The widespread undervaluing of educators is forcing teachers and education support professionals to seek out the jobs in districts that pay enough to allow them to keep up with the cost of living. Even those “good paying positions” typically offer wages well below those paid in other professions requiring advanced education and training. Vacancies now routinely go unfilled as new educators are not in the pipeline — young people can’t afford to become teachers anymore.

As both veteran and newer educators explained in their testimony to the School Committee on Jan. 8, they can easily take jobs in neighboring districts and immediately see their pay go up by as much as $10,000.

And to be clear, that money looks appealing because Hampshire Regional educators have not seen an annual raise above 2% for 16 years. In some years, educators received raises that were fractions of a percent.

Our dedication to students could be counted on to overcome whatever fiscal pressures faced the towns in our regional school district.

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But the School Committee is turning our dedication into exploitation. And that underlying unfairness is cracking the foundation of our school community, as one HREA member said at the School Committee meeting.

It is shameful when educators with decades of experience have to worry about being able to pay their household bills or be afraid to think about what retirement might look like.

It is shameful when paraeducators working with our most vulnerable students earn far below a living wage.

It is shameful when educators cannot have a humane amount of time off specifically to bond with a new child or to care for a family member.

The status of contract bargaining can be summed up by simply saying that the Hampshire Regional School Committee is pushing a contract that makes our school district an undesirable place to work, a place that does not value educators and is willing to sacrifice the quality of education for students in our regional school now and those heading here over the coming years.

The HREA knows that it is unrealistic and impossible to recover all of the lost financial ground we’ve experienced. Thus, our proposals are meant to stop the economic backsliding and provide relief to all types of educators — new, veteran, classroom teachers and paraeducators — via improved pay and modern family-friendly benefits.

To the parents, students and community members who have stood by our side as we fight for a fair contract, we can’t thank you enough. Your support keeps us going. And no dollar figure could ever capture what we gain when we see our students grow and flourish. We urge the School Committee to join us in that work with a fair contract.

Greg Reynolds and Jesse Porter-Henry are co-presidents of the Hampshire Regional Education Association.