Updated on Aug. 17 to provide context to the comments of Mount Greylock teacher Patrick Blackman.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The acting president of the Mount Greylock Regional School District's teachers union Friday rejected a School Committee member's suggestion that the union should hold its collective bargaining sessions in public and accused the committee of violating Massachusetts labor law in its Thursday evening meeting.
"Bargaining will not be done publicly," Lanesborough Elementary School teacher Jennifer Szymanski wrote in an email on behalf of the Mount Greylock Educators Association.
Szymanski was replying to a request for comment on Thursday night after School Committee member Steven Miller twice suggested that the panel hold public meetings with the union to discuss contractual changes needed to accomplish a return to classes in September.
At the time, Miller was pushing Interim Superintendent Robert Putnam and the district's three principals to agree with the committee and abandon a plan to start the year with two weeks of remote instruction before transitioning to a hybrid model that would have had the district's general education students in school for a maximum of two days per week.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Miller has been the committee's most consistent voice advocating for solutions that could maximize the number of children in schools while maintaining the face covering, social distancing and hygiene requirements that will be a part of any return to in-person instruction.
"We can't let this fear paralyze us," Miller said. "We have the ability to make things work. We have to make decisions. As [Putnam] said, no decision is going to please everyone. We have the ability to let people stay home and be remote students if they want, and we have the ability to let people come back if they want and they need to. My goal is to let anyone who wants to come back to be able to come back each day. I can't believe we would actually turn children away from school who want to come to school.
"I would like to join [Putnam's Friday negotiations with MGEA]. And I would like to suggest that, similar to School Committee meetings and Education Subcommittee meetings, we open up these discussions for the entire community to watch and join in. I find that time and time again, there are great suggestions about how to solve things from people at these meetings. These are issues that affect us all. We are all in it together."
Ultimately, the School Committee voted, 6-1, to tell Putnam to throw out the plan he proposed and instead submit on Friday to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education the plan that the committee favored.
"There were multiple committees formed to plan for the start of the upcoming school year," Szymanski wrote. "Many volunteers and many hours were spent reviewing and discussing the issues from every angle. The School Committee completely disregarded all of that work and voted in favor of their own personal preferences for starting school."
During Thursday's public comment period, the School Commitee heard a letter submitted by MGEA endorsing Putnam's proposal, which he presented to the community in a virtual town hall on Tuesday.
Most of the comments among the 19 submitted for Thursday's meeting advocated for more in-person instruction than Putnam was proposing. Included in those comments was one commenter who self-identified as a science teacher at the middle-high school.
"Unlike many district parents, I can speak from experience," Faith Manary wrote. "I have two children, a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old. They go to day care. They wear masks all day. They are socially distanced. They cannot hug their friends. They eat their lunch in the classrooms. They are screened before they enter the building. They love it. They come home talking about the fun they had and their friends and the things they learned. They are excited to go to school every day, and I am grateful they have that choice.
"School can be safe and still be a place where children are happy."
A different representative of the local teachers union Sunday in a social media post acknowledged the diversity of opinion within the group but said the overwhelming majority supported a July 29 resolution by the Massachusetts Teachers Association that reads, in part "districts and the state must demonstrate that health and safety conditions and negotiated public health benchmarks are met before buildings reopen."
"As leaders, we endorsed MTA's statement regarding returning to safe schools, but we pushed it out to a member ratification vote," Mount Greylock teacher Pat Blackman said in a Facebook post. "One hundred, thirty-seven members voted in an 81.8 percent majority to ratify that statement. No motion, save 'let's have snacks at meetings,' gets more than that level of support."
Without directly addressing Miller's "public negotiations" idea, Blackman noted that respect for the 19.2 percent of the local's membership in the minority on that vote is one reason why MGEA would not agree to negotiate in public should not engage in public debate.
"It's also our obligation to respect and represent the minority opinion," Blackman wrote.
Szymanski, the acting president of MGEA, questioned not only the result of Thursday's School Committee meeting but the process by which it was achieved.
"It is our understanding that the School Committee authorized the superintendent to bargain on their behalf," Szymanski wrote. "We had a bargaining session with Dr. Putnam and we reached a tentative agreement to open with remote learning and then transition to an acceptable, reasonable hybrid model only when mutually agreed upon metrics were met. The committee's action, to vote for a completely different model for reopening and not take an official vote on the tentative agreement is, in our opinion, a violation of M.G.L. 150E s. 10. Specifically, it is bargaining in bad faith."
Szymanski stood by MGEA's stated position that while there are risks to children's social/emotional development from continued remote learning, those risks can be mitigated without taking a chance on spreading the novel coronavirus.
"Some make the case that the risk of damage that will come from students not being in school is greater than that to students and staff from COVID," Thursday's letter said. "While we acknowledge that those risks are there, we do not see that in-person schooling is the only reasonable path for their mitigation, particularly during a time of pandemic. Our district provided meals to hungry families during the spring shutdown. It still does and could continue to do so this fall. Our counselors and mental health professionals were available last spring and will still be on call for families that need them.
"There are also several other community tools available to families in Northern Berkshire County. Finally, socialization among students in parent-controlled pods became common in the spring and could continue this fall with each family deciding for themselves how much risk they can accept."
On Friday morning, Szymanski indicated that the union believes the School Committee turned a deaf ear to its argument about balancing physical safety and social/emotional needs.
"[W]e believe their actions showed a callous disregard for the health and safety of students and staff as well as reducing the profession of teaching to mere childcare," Szymanski wrote.
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Williamstown Watching Washington, Not Yet Fretting Impact on ARPA Funds
By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The town manager Friday was cautiously optimistic that a potential debt ceiling deal in Washington, D.C., that includes "claw back" provisions on American Rescue Plan Act funds would not impact the town's ability to utilize the remainder of $2.2 million in pandemic-related federal relief.
"I'm not especially concerned," Robert Menicocci said. "I always put an asterisk beside something like that when we talk about anything legislative. You never know until it's in ink, when it's signed by everyone — whether local, state or federal legislation."
The $350 billion ARPA passed in 2021 included funding for state and local governments. Williamstown's share works out to $2,222,073, according to the commonwealth's website.
A good deal of that money is already "out the door," spent on both direct COVID 19-related expenses and other items approved by the Select Board over the last couple of years.
In order to give residents a chance to try out the town's new electronic voting devices on a low-stakes question, meeting organizers devised a couple of sample questions to kick off the meeting.
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Town meeting Tuesday rejected a bylaw amendment that would have removed barriers to manufactured housing, endorsed the use of electronic voting devices at the meeting and chose to take no action on a bylaw change that would have required dogs to be leashed in public areas.
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