Northampton School Committee denies union grievance at Bridge Street

  • Bridge Street Elementary School.

Staff Writer
Published: 1/26/2018 10:58:33 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The Northampton School Committee this week denied a grievance filed by the teacher’s union alleging unsafe work conditions and understaffing at the Bridge Street Elementary School following the implementation of a districtwide “inclusion model” for special needs students.

“It really felt like a betrayal,” said Andrea Egitto, chapter coordinator for the Northampton Association of School Employees, which represents staff at Northampton schools. “Never before have teachers come together and stood up in such a huge way to say we need help. The parents are speaking out and the teachers are standing up.”

In the coming weeks, Egitto said, the union will meet with Bridge Street teachers and staff to discuss their next steps. Among the options is further arbitration, which could include filing another grievance.

The School Committee denied NASE’s complaint based on evidence presented during the grievance process, wrote Mayor David Narkewicz in a Jan. 23 letter to Sadie Cora, NASE’s professional rights and responsibilities chairwoman. Narkewicz, who serves as School Committee chairman, said there was insufficient evidence that the collective bargaining agreement and, specifically, a health and safety article, has been violated.

Though NASE gave examples of injuries to Bridge Street teachers that have occurred this year, the frequency of reported injuries as a result of student actions does not appear to be any more significant in frequency or type than in prior years, Narkewicz said.

“As a public school district in Massachusetts, the Northampton Public Schools does not pick and choose its student population and it is unrealistic to believe that the teachers and other staff in any school environment will be free from any risk of injury,” he wrote.

Narkewicz added that complaints addressed in a Jan. 11 School Committee hearing did not warrant the level of grievance filed by the teacher’s union, and that it appears that NASE’s concerns “have been addressed.”

In the letter, he said the district provided additional trained staff to support teachers, that Bridge Street had a behavioral analyst on staff, and that there were crisis management procedures in place that staff may not have been utilizing properly. Additionally, Bridge Street has the lowest student-to-adult ratio in the district, which is far below state averages.

This year, all elementary schools in the Northampton district introduced a new version of the “inclusion model,” which involves teaching students with disabilities in the same classrooms as their non-disabled peers. The changes eliminated 19 educational support positions, and added 5.5 special education teachers and one general education teacher.

Teachers and parents at Bridge Street allege the inclusion model created a chaotic school environment, resulting in injuries to both teachers and students. NASE’s complaint blames understaffing for unsafe work conditions and immediately called for new hires.

“We’ve been working with the administration and it became clear... the superintendent was clear that we don’t have money in this budget,” Egitto said.

According to Egitto, the union is in support of the inclusion model, but says the school needs more staff to implement it properly. She admits there have been steps taken to rectify the situation, including hiring an additional teacher and education support personnel.

The School Committee received the grievance on Jan. 9, and the matter was discussed behind closed doors at the Jan. 11 hearing. On Jan. 25, the School Board held a meeting to discuss proposed solutions to the problems at Bridge Street, but few teachers showed up due to lack of morale, according to Egitto.

Egitto said that last March, when the inclusion model proposal was first introduced, the union started asking administrators to slow down the implementation.

Other than injuries, the complaint alleged teachers were told no assistance was available during crisis situations, leaving them alone to “de-escalate students who are physically aggressive.” Lack of follow-up by administrators and instances where students in distress caused restricted access to hallways and classrooms were also listed among the complaints.

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@gazettenet.com


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