Progress in South Hadley teacher contract talks, but atmosphere strained

  • Buses from Five Star Transportation pick up students from South Hadley High School at dismissal on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022.

Staff Writer
Published: 11/30/2022 8:37:02 PM
Modified: 11/30/2022 8:36:48 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — After nearly four weeks of public school teachers, paraeducators and other staff members working only their contracted hours, union members and the school district have cleared a hurdle in their contract negotiations.

Amy Foley, president of the South Hadley Education Association, announced via Facebook that the unit for the paraprofessionals and education therapy assistants had come to a tentative agreement with the district.

In an interview with the Gazette, Foley credited the union’s movement, support from the community and decision to go “work-to-rule” for the breakthrough.

The union, whose approximately 270 members are entering a second year without a contract, decided to take the work-to-rule action, meaning that teachers undertake no work beyond their contractually mandated hours, on Nov. 3 after negotiations with the district had hit a standstill.

“Our paras will have a 17.5% increase over the four-year contract and our ETAs 25% increase over the four-year contract,” said Foley, adding that the paperwork still needs to be finalized. “Our efforts are working. Our solidarity is working. We’re hoping that this momentum will continue.”


With teachers no longer helping with bus duties in the morning and afternoon, and staying after school to provide students with extra help, members of the school’s district administration have stepped in.

“The special education director, the superintendent, the assistant superintendent, everyone from the central office is all doing bus duty right now. They’ve all been pulled away from their jobs to help,” said School Committee Chairwoman Allison Schlachter. “Students who typically see their teachers for extra help on a subject aren’t able to at the moment.”

At the middle school, after-school programming has also taken a hit, according to Schlachter. At this age level, a nurse is required to be present in order to hold the program. For the time being, Schlachter said some programs have been discontinued or put on hold indefinitely.

She also noted that students and parents have also voiced concerns about having teachers pen college recommendation letters.

“Although there are no mandates that teachers provide help outside their contracted time, it is the norm in the profession. Most teachers will stay after or come in early one day a week — that’s the norm across the state and the nation,” she said. “The central office has been fielding a lot of phone calls from parents who are upset or have concerns about their children’s needs not being met.”

Another challenge in the district has been an influx of call-outs from educators. At a recent School Committee meeting, Interim Superintendent Mark McLaughlin said he’s had parents questioning whether students are getting a full day of education.

“We have made it clear, as have many districts around the state and throughout the country, that there is a tremendous substitute shortage. So when a teacher is out, which is their absolute right to be out, it is not self-evident that we have coverage,” McLaughlin said at the Nov. 17 meeting.

In the week of Nov. 9-16, he reported that there were 24 staff absences at Mosier Elementary School, 18 staff absences at Michael E. Smith Middle School, 24 paraeducator and 12 teacher absences at Plains School, and 51 teacher absences at South Hadley High School.

In response to the shortfall, high school classrooms without teachers or substitute teachers are sent to the auditorium. During this time, McLaughlin said, one of his tasks was helping to relieve teachers who needed to have lunch and he wrote bathroom passes for the students.

“We obviously don’t have the substitute coverage for that,” he said.

McLaughlin then put out a call for anyone watching or attending the School Committee meeting who had extra time to sign up as a substitute as he detailed the current challenge.

Foley said that the lack of substitute coverage has existed for some time now and did not link it to the union’s work-to-rule action. She also noted that the absences could be linked to the increase of sickness and cases of COVID-19.

“I’m one of those teachers that went into work early and stayed late. I will tell you, it’s been uncomfortable for me as a teacher and my colleagues feel the same way,” she said. “I feel like I’m more behind (by only working my contracted hours).”

Tense atmosphere

While contract negotiations continue to move forward, members of the union and School Committee have described an especially tense atmosphere at meetings held this month. On Nov. 22, the association released a letter via Facebook about why members decided to take the work-to-rule action. The union alleges that, among other things, the committee has refused to respond to their wage proposals and refused to meet with them on Saturdays and Sundays.

“This School Committee has failed to value our educators, and therefore the students, in our district,” the letter reads. It continues, “We are not engaging in this action [work-to-rule] to punish our students, and we can assure you that the academic, social and emotional wellbeing of our students is our top concern.”

Schlachter disagreed with the union’s assertions and took issue with the letter.

“We’re all very supportive and grateful for our teachers. We’re on their side,” she said. “We just don’t have the money.”

McLaughlin said that if the district were to accept the union’s recent proposal of a 19% increase for a four-year contract, the district could potentially look at cutting eight positions in fiscal year 2023, 14 positions in fiscal year 2024, and 21 positions in fiscal year 2025. By fiscal year 2025, classroom sizes would be more than 35 students per classroom.

Schlacter also said that she felt that the discussions have become very personal.

At the last School Committee meeting, both she and fellow member Kyle Belanger said they had received text messages that were allegedly from a senior union member that they felt were “bullying” and “harassing.” Schlachter also said that union members have consistently belittled committee members on Facebook and Twitter.

“This is not partnering. We are in mediation to come together as partners, and we are being bullied and harassed,” she said.

While Schlachter spoke at the meeting, Belanger interrupted to add “bullying is a power dynamic, repeated and targeted. What we have described is all of those things.”

Foley denounced the behavior adding that union members know better than to do something like that. She added that she felt Belanger and Schlachter spoke to her in a very aggressive manner.

“I’ve been in the district for 16 years and taught in 2010, when there was the tragic event that took place with Phoebe Prince. Being accused of bullying is something that is very triggering for me, and I take accusations of bullying seriously,” she said.

Prince, who attended South Hadley High School, died by suicide in January 2010 when she was 15 years old. Following her death, six of her classmates were criminally prosecuted and the state enacted stricter anti-bullying legislation.

Foley said she had not seen any of the text messages herself.

In the meantime, both Foley and Schlachter said that they were hopeful that the contracts could all soon be ratified. The next round of negotiations is scheduled for Dec. 12.

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