The contract at Williamstown Elementary has already run out; school officials are trying to negotiate one new contract for teachers at all three schools.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — At the end of a 4 1/2-hour meeting that included a 90-minute executive session, the Mount Greylock school committee issued its first public statement on a labor dispute that has roiled the recently expanded regional school district.
The meeting began with public comments from 10 people, including a spokesman for the district's teachers union, with a common theme: Pay the teachers what they've been promised.
The committee's answer, delivered by the head of its negotiations subcommittee, argued that it is honoring its contractual agreements. But it is a complicated process to unify the deals at Lanesborough Elementary School, Williamstown Elementary School and the middle-high school.
"The school committee is honoring all contractual provisions that existed as of June 30, 2018, the date that the new region became the employer of record," Chris Dodig read in a prepared statement delivered at about 10:30 Thursday night. "Furthermore, the contract at one of the three schools — Williamstown Elementary — expired on June 30, 2018. Obviously, for this school, there is no wage increase to be honored.
"The school committee also believes that as a legal matter, the former contracts are no longer valid and that a new contract with a new unified pay scale and new wage amounts for all teachers in all schools, including Williamstown Elementary, must be negotiated. But the public should be aware that during the current negotiations, the school committee has made a salary offer to the teachers that we believe exceeds the value of the raises included in the old contracts."
The inability to resolve the differences has led to the union employees instituting a "work to rule" labor action that includes refusal to staff some extracurricular activities, and the union has filed 30 separate unfair labor practice charges against the district, according to union spokesman Marty Walter.
Walter chastised the elected officials for not listening to the union in January when the union argued that six months was not enough time to negotiate the new contract.
"Then, as your deadline inevitably approached and we were not finished with this important work, you announced to us that you would abide by the terms and conditions of our contracts but not honor the monetary provisions of those contracts, thereby freezing the wages for the teachers as well as for the paraprofessionals, custodians and cafeteria workers," Walter read in a prepared statement. "I would like to remind you that these are salary and wage agreements that each of you personally negotiated, prior to regionalization, in what we thought was good faith."
Calling the school committee's "wage freeze" a "punitive action," Walter said the teachers were forced to "cease participating in activities that fall outside our regular workday."
That labor action concerned parents and students who addressed the committee, technically the Transition Committee formed of elected representatives from the former school committees at Lanesborough, Williamstown and Mount Greylock.
"Frankly, we just don't know what's going on," said Mount Greylock senior Avery Powers, the secretary of the student council and currently the student representative to the Transition Committee. "Many students were not told about the job action. They don't know why their favorite club doesn't meet every Wednesday or why they can't go to Williams College tutoring sessions."
"I come to school and look forward to it every day because of my wonderful teachers," Powers' classmate Clare Sheehy said. "It hurts that I know they're not getting the money they were guaranteed in their contracts. I'm a senior. We may not have a yearbook because we don't have an adviser. … The students here at Mount Greylock, the majority, stand with our teachers."
Dodig's response addressed the labor action that has left school activities hanging.
"In late August, before the school year started, the school committee voted unanimously and made the following proposal to teachers: If the teachers suspend the job action, then the district will retroactively pay any and all wage increases that are agreed to as part of an overall settlement," Dodig read. "This essentially means that all teachers would be paid their full raises for the current school year, to be paid when an overall settlement was reached."
Walter said the decision to stop supporting extracurricular activities was not made lightly by the union.
"We truly regret the impact this might have on our students," Walter said. "But we cannot, in good conscience, volunteer our own time and resources when our salaries are unjustly frozen. Our homes, families and children are as dear to us as yours are to you, and we take this uncomfortable position for their sake."
Janice Loux, of a group calling itself "Committee of Concerned Parents, Taxpayers and Voters of Children Who Attend the Williamstown and Lanesborough Schools," has been promoting a flier accusing the district of "unfair and unjust labor relations tactic[s]" and addressed the committee from the floor on Thursday night.
Loux reminded the committee that in the runup to last year's vote to fully regionalize the district, voters were told that while unifying the three schools would require reconciling three existing sets contracts, "no teacher will suffer a negative impact."
"Every day you keep that raise away from them, it's a negative impact," Loux said. "Christmas is coming up. … They need sneakers, vacations. They do the right thing. Please give them their raise."
Walter told the school committee that the teachers had "done the right thing" and supported the effort to regionalize the district but now are being adversely affected by that process.
"Regionalization is moving forward, and we are enthusiastic about working with our new colleagues to create the best possible learning environment for our students," Walter said. "However, we demand to be treated fairly throughout the process of getting there."
As for the details of salaries and benefits under negotiation, Dodig said the school committee was reluctant to talk about specifics before a deal is reached, but "Under the circumstances, however, it seems necessary to respond to some of the misunderstandings regarding the status of the current negotiations.
"The 'new' wage increase that the school committee has offered amounts to a 2.89 percent pay increase, on average, for all of the teachers. In this first year after regionalization, the pay increases will vary widely from teacher to teacher. The school committee, however, has made a commitment that no teacher will suffer a decrease in wages."
Dodig indicated that there has been progress made on the salary issue.
"At the last negotiation meeting, the teachers agreed that our wage proposal for the current school year was largely acceptable," he said. "We agreed on a new salary grid and the salary placement for approximately 90 percent of the teachers, and all parties felt that we would be able to work out acceptable placement of the remaining 10 percent of the teachers.
"Of course, the school committee and the teachers union have both made clear that this agreement regarding the first year's wages must be part of an overall agreement on a new contract. This is important because, for example, if the school committee agreed to pay a higher percentage toward the teachers' health insurance, then the district likely could not afford to pay a 2.89 percent first-year raise."
Dodig also said that while wages are a "primary issue," there are other sticking points.
One he mentioned specifically is the long-standing practice at Williamstown Elementary of dismissing pupils at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesdays. Many in the community have speculated about how that practice could be reconciled with the schedules at the district's other two schools, where the bell rings at the same time each afternoon.
"The teachers at Williamstown Elementary have certainly become fond of this tradition and they argue that the early-release Wednesday is good for all parties," Dodig said. "The school committee recognizes that change is difficult, but we also know the primary responsibility of the school committee is to focus on student achievement.
"It is difficult to accept that student achievement is advanced through sending students and teachers home early on Wednesdays."
Dodig said the Transition Committee stands behind the offers it has made to its bargaining units during negotiations, and it believes that voters would as well.
"If the teachers would prefer that the complete details of the offers and proposals made by both sides during the process be disclosed to the public, we are willing to consider such a complete disclosure," he said. "We are not in any way embarrassed by the offers we have made to the teachers and believe that the public would find them very reasonable and even overly generous in some instances."
Williamstown native and Pownal, Vt., resident Foster Goodrich said the committee and "the public" should rally around the educators and the students.
"I would encourage [the committee] to take into consideration the value of the teachers and after-school programs," Goodrich said. "I'd like our community to step up and try to move past some hard times and work toward a common goal for our children and our friends.
"There's a lot of love in the world. We can bring some in this room and get the negotiations done."
The first school committee meeting in the new meeting room at Mount Greylock began with a packed house that had officials worrying that they might be exceeding the room's capacity. Teachers from all three schools filled the room, many holding signs with phrases like, "You Froze Our Pay; You Hurt Our Families."
That sentiment carried over into several of the public comments, including those from Williamstown resident Peggy Kern.
"Make whatever sacrifices are required to make sure you're paying a living wage," Kern said. "I came here to express my upset at seeing this have to occur in my town, my ostensibly very progressive town, where we believe in the rights of workers and collective bargaining and keeping our word.
"My town just approved a multimillion-dollar police station, and my teachers are sitting here with signs trying to nickel and dime their way to a living wage."
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