South Hadley public charter school reaches first labor contract with staff

  • The Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School is located on Mulligan Drive in South Hadley. —FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 11/10/2020 12:18:10 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — Staff members at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School (PVPA) have reached their first labor contract with the school, according to the local union chapter.

Under the three-year contract, staff members have access to a formal grievance procedure, protections for performance evaluations and disciplines, and correction of “a longstanding inequity in the pay scale,” according to United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) Local 2322 Servicing Representative Karen Rosenberg. Staff members formally unionized under UAW in February 2018.

Karin Kayser, a teacher at PVPA and a member of the bargaining committee, said that staff members “feel like we have achieved most of the protections that traditional public school teachers and staff have,” and that the union was able to negotiate victories on key issues. The contract is “a huge relief” after “a long, difficult, challenging process,” she said.

“We’re very grateful to our Board of Trustees and members of our administrative team who worked really collaboratively to come up with an agreement that we could both agree to,” she added, “and also took into account the change in the economy during the pandemic.”

Board of Trustees president Melinda Winter said that all involved in the process “wanted what was best for the school in general and the students, and that happened.

“It took longer than anyone wanted it to, and it was a hard process on both sides,” she continued, “but I’m very glad that we can now move forward and work together ... with a contract and a union that I think is stronger and going to make the community better.”

The board and UAW members voted unanimously to approve the contract.

The union represents around 60 PVPA employees, including all teachers, counselors, the school nurse, psychologists, librarians, and paraprofessionals.

Rosenberg said that reaching a contract in itself is an “outstanding accomplishment,” noting that PVPA is “one of the few and one of the first charter schools where teachers have reached contracts” in the state. In neighboring Chicopee, Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School formally unionized in April and is currently “in the early stages” of negotiations, according to Rosenberg.

The pay inequity addressed in PVPA’s contract arose when the school modified its pay scale in 2017 as part of an effort to attract and retain new teachers, according to Rosenberg. As a result, some new hires were receiving higher pay than more senior staff members. Under the new contract, about 20 teachers and counselors will receive a “fairly significant pay raise,” Rosenberg said.

PVPA Chief Financial Officer Marcy Connor said that the board had originally established “a multiyear plan where teachers would receive pay increases over the time of that plan,” resulting in increased pay for new hires and longevity increases for senior staff members, but that negotiations put the plan on hold. Connor said that PVPA is still working to establish a more competitive salary matrix, which she hopes a future contract will address.

“It’s a really delicate balance between our funding and what we can afford, and recognition that we want to be competitive,” Connor said. “We want the talent and want to be able to provide that support for our staff.”

Several factors elongated the negotiating process, Rosenberg said, including a leadership change at the school, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the mediator between the union and PVPA needing to take a parental leave. Rosenberg also said she believes the school “for a long time was just not ready and willing to make an agreement. They were hoping that maybe if they were dragging things out the union would go away, so our team really persevered and basically outlasted them.”

Winters responded that the Board of Trustees has always supported the staff’s decision to unionize, though when staff first began the unionization process, then-head of PVPA, George Simpson, was not supportive. Shortly after staff formally unionized, the board fired Simpson after he was arrested on charges of heroin and methamphetamine possession in January 2018. Winters said that while the board supported the staff’s union, much of the negotiations involved the division of staff into units.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.

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