Push and pull: Teachers and staff press for higher wages, as School Committee approves budget

  • Northampton school employees rally for higher wages before a meeting of the School Committee at JFK Middle School Thursday night. The committee approved the school budget for next year, while contract negotiations between the union and city continue. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Members of the Northampton Association of School Employees union and their supporters gather to rally for higher wages prior to a meeting of the School Committee, Thursday, April 11, 2019 at JFK Middle School. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Members of the Northampton Association of School Employees union and their supporters rally for higher wages prior to a meeting of the School Committee, Thursday, April 11, 2019 at JFK Middle School. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Members of the Northampton Association of School Employees union and their supporters rally for higher wages prior to a meeting of the School Committee, Thursday, April 11, 2019 at JFK Middle School. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Members of the Northampton Association of School Employees union and their supporters rally for higher wages prior to a meeting of the School Committee, Thursday, at JFK Middle School. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Members of the Northampton Association of School Employees union and their supporters rally for higher wages prior to a meeting of the School Committee, Thursday, April 11, 2019 at JFK Middle School. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Members of the Northampton Association of School Employees union and their supporters rally for higher wages prior to a meeting of the School Committee, Thursday, April 11, 2019 at JFK Middle School. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Members of the Northampton Association of School Employees union and their supporters rally for higher wages prior to a meeting of the School Committee, Thursday, April 11, 2019 at JFK Middle School. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Members of the Northampton Association of School Employees union and their supporters rally for higher wages prior to a meeting of the School Committee, Thursday, April 11, 2019 at JFK Middle School. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 4/12/2019 9:46:27 AM

NORTHAMPTON — The School Committee voted Thursday to approve the budget for the coming academic year after cutting $214,000 in proposed positions and other expenses from the total budget of over $30 million.

The vote, taken just before midnight in the community room at JFK Middle School, came after a long public comment period in which more than 30 people — many of them teachers and other school employees, as well as parents and two high school students — spoke about the need for pay increases in the district.

Before the meeting, roughly 200 people rallied outside of the school with signs bearing messages like “Fund our future,” “Value our children by valuing their educators,” and “Today Stop & Shop tomorrow Northampton schools.”

Northampton Association of School Employees (NASE) — the union that represents school employees including teachers, educational support professionals (ESPs), custodians and cafeteria workers — is currently in contract negotiations with the School Committee. At a meeting on March 28, NASE members brought forth similar concerns about pay, and the committee moved to delay a vote on the budget to April 11. NASE members said they were dissatisfied with what they characterized as low pay increase offers put on the table at a recent collective bargaining session.

In advance of the School Committee meeting, Northampton Public Schools Superintendent John Provost said he was unable to comment on collective bargaining, a statement that Mayor David Narkewicz, who is chairman of the School Committee, later echoed.

“I think the process should take place in executive session,” Provost said. The next negotiations are scheduled for April 29.

During the public comment period at Thursday’s meeting, some speakers pointed out that pay in Northampton schools is below average for the state. According to the most recent data from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education from 2016-2017, the average teacher pay in Northampton is $61,711, while the state average is $78,708.

The testimonies 

Just before 7 p.m., a line formed in the hallway outside the community room as a crowd of people packed in. One by one, public speakers, many of them teachers and school staff, talked about the need for pay raises.

Claire Williams, a band teacher at JFK Middle School, said she took a $10,000 pay cut when she came to the district from Holyoke in 2006. “It was an enormous financial sacrifice for my family,” she said, addressing the School Committee. “All I could think was, ‘Boy, you guys got a good deal.’” If she weren’t so close to retirement, she would consider leaving, she said: “I guarantee you will not be so lucky when I retire, if the city of Northampton continues to underpay its teachers.”

Sara Churchill, a sixth-grade special education teacher at JFK, said she feels supported by her colleagues, but “my paycheck, on the other hand, has been anything but supportive.”

Sara Simmons, a fourth-grade teacher at RK Finn Ryan Road School and a lifelong Northampton resident, said when her husband recently woke up in severe pain, she chose to come to school for the MCAS that day, while he drove himself to the emergency room. But she was left worrying — about her husband, and money, she said: “How we are going pay the $100 copay along with our water and sewer bill this month?” she recalled asking herself. “That is the reality of being one of the lowest-paid teachers in the state.”

“I really wish I could stand in the back of this room and not speak,” said Mary Demerath, a special-education teacher at Bridge Street School.

She said her years working in private school and as a paraprofessional were not counted when she came to Northampton and was started on the first pay step. “I was starting over at age 40,” she said. In the school, she said she brings her best self — better than what her family gets of her sometimes. Her job doesn’t end when she gets home. She worries about some students, she said: “The weight of this emotional caregiving is heavy.”

Her recent W-2 take-home pay after Massachusetts retirement payments and state and federal taxes was $35,500, she told the room. “You should be embarrassed,” she said to the School Committee, adding, “You do not seem to see my value … and my impact.”

Barbara Rakaska, a 35-year employee of the district in food service, said that, in her department, pay starts below minimum wage. “We can’t live like this in the food service department,” she said. “We’re as important as everyone else.”

Tadea Martin-Gonzalez, a junior at Northampton High School, also spoke. “My experience at NHS has been nothing but positive, largely because of the staff and what they do,” she said. “It should be common sense that our teachers make more.”

One parent of a student at RK Finn Ryan Road with an individualized education program (IEP) said the school staff has supported her daughter. “This kid has had a complete turnaround because of her teachers,” she said. “I would hate to see any of them leave — any of them.”

The committee responds

The original proposed budget included adding the equivalent of 10.17 positions, but many educators have said they would rather see fewer positions added and more funding available to make room for possible pay increases as negotiations continue.

Provost said that some of the proposed positions in the budget, such as several academic and behavioral support teachers, can’t be cut because local expenditures on special education must meet a certain level in order to keep receiving federal special-education funding, a rule called “maintenance of effort.”

Based on public comment, Provost suggested $203,000 of proposed positions and other expenses could be reduced, including a math teacher at Northampton High School, a director of equity for the district, and $18,600 worth of air conditioners. The committee later voted to cut those expenses from the budget, and they also struck an $11,000 line item for Schoology, software designed to share academic content.

Other expenses are not part of maintenance of effort, but Provost recommended some of those positions remain in the budget. For example, he supports expanding the hours of teachers of English as a second language. In a slide he showed to the room, it said ESL positions are “support for our lowest-performing subgroup of students.”

Provost told the Gazette that hourly substitute pay for jobs such as ESPs, clerks, cafeteria workers, custodians and bus monitors will increase to $13 per hour, up from the current $11 per hour, in the next academic year’s budget. The total budget of $30,743,780 is up 3.5 percent from last year, an increase of $1,039,645.

“During public comment, many employees spoke in opposition to adding new positions to the budget,” Provost said in an email to the Gazette Friday morning. “I hope the School Committee’s decision to eliminate these proposed positions will help our current employees feel heard and respected.”

In a recent interview with the Gazette, the mayor spoke of state-wide structural issues with school funding, including the Chapter 70 program, which he has advocated to change and which could bring more money to the schools.

The deadline for the School Committee to pass the budget is April 15. After that, it will go to the mayor, who will compile an overall city budget and submit it to the City Council, which will hold a public hearing on the budget and must vote to approve it by the end of June. The City Council can cut the budget but not increase it.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com




Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061
413-584-5000

 

Copyright © 2019 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy