Educators Plead For Resumption Of Contract Negotiations At School Committee Meeting

Amherst and Pelham educators speak out in support of a new contract at the Amherst School Committee Meeting on March 2, 2023. Photo: You Tube

Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst School Committee And Regional School Committee Meeting, March 2, 2023. Part 1

This meeting was recorded and can be viewed here
Part 2 of the Report on the meeting of the Regional School Committee can be found here.

An estimated 100 educators and their supporters packed the Amherst Regional High School Library to advocate for resuming contract negotiations with the school committee. The Amherst Pelham Educators Association (APEA) contract with the schools expired over a year ago. Mediation has not enabled the sides to reach a solution, and negotiations have stalled. The teachers voiced their frustration with the situation. Following the public comment section of the meeting, the Regional School Committee convened to discuss the upcoming budget. That discussion will be reported in Part 2 of this article.

A sample of the public comments follows.

ARHS teacher and coach Chris Gould expressed disappointment that communication has broken down, but said he had the confidence that we can move forward together. 

ARHS teacher and coach Keith McFarland encouraged the school committee to return to negotiating and get a contract. He said mediation has been ineffective, adding, “Teachers are not your enemy. If you trust your children with them, you can certainly sit down at the table to work out a deal.”

Will Loring, kindergarten teacher in Pelham, decried the grim outlook in the town budget, even though we’ve been fiscally responsible in our contract agreements. He said that Amherst police do not enforce noise ordinances for college student parties, and there is plenty of money for the Jones Library, the athletic fields and to give Mike Morris a raise, but there is none for teachers. He concluded, “This town is more concerned about the look of things than the people in it. I’m not asking for a raise any more, I’m asking that the people who do the work feel valued. This is what we do every day. You should try it.”

Chris Herland said he has been teaching in Amherst for 20 years and “contract negotiations have never felt great. Each contract has felt somewhat like a kick in the teeth, because each is a cut.” He noted that health insurance premiums are slated to go up by 8%, and the last salary raise was 0.6%, adding, “You should be a little embarrassed about this. We didn’t ask for an 8% raise—like social security got. We were asking for a modest increase, and granting it would have made us feel valued. I’m at the point that it’s really a bummer.“

A Spanish teacher questioned, “How much does mediation cost? How much does a mediator get per hour? I don’t understand why we can’t talk directly. Please negotiate with us. We care about our jobs and the children. Give us some respect.“

Michael O’Connor said he moved to the district because the town values education. The increased fees that were instituted with the last contract did not keep pace with inflation. The $1 per hour raise for lowest paid workers is still well below a living wage in this state. He pointed out that the last regional school budget had a 2% surplus, so that the Regional School Committee returned over $700,000 to the towns. He concluded, “You are not treating us respectfully.”

A math teacher asked, “If I were a new teacher, why would I want to work here? We are unable to hire a math teacher. The last one hired quit before the first day. Salaries should be competitive. We are still down one math teacher. We have to compete with other districts in terms of salaries.”

Yael Fuerst questioned, “Why are you not talking with us? You trust us with our children. Extend us the courtesy of negotiating in person.” 

Jeff Kalman, a first-grade teacher at Wildwood, told of a student asking why both he and his co-teacher were dressed alike, wearing APEA shirts. He explained to her that they belong to this organization that is trying to talk to the people who pay us and they aren’t listening to us. “Communication skills,” he said, “are what we are trying to teach our first-graders.”

Paraeducator Ali Dunlop said she wants to be a teacher in Amherst, but looking at the situation and hearing from veteran teachers, it seems really hard. She said, “No one joins the School Committee to go be a jerk. but Amherst’s salaries are not competitive.” The district should be an opportunity for new teachers because it’s an incredible community. But the main thing stopping it is compensation. She continued, “I feel you’re not seeing us as people. Until we resolve this, it cannot be a welcoming place.”

Drew Egan, a kindergarten teacher at Wildwood in his third year, said, ”We’ve recently adopted a new math program and science of reading program. You’ve communicated about these things, but then refuse to collaborate with us about contracts. It is really disappointing.”

Amy Kalman has taught for over 15 years and is a parent and resident. She said, “I appreciate that your intentions are good, but I feel there is a failure to communicate. That is what I work on with my special ed students. I teach them self-advocacy — asking for what you need. I’ve tried to bite my tongue and not ask for too much. Our children came back from learning at home, but  ill equipped to ask for  what they need from us. Children and teachers are struggling. It is impossible to fathom not paying adequately for this work.”

Elizabeth Pretel started teaching here 10 years ago and has been  writing grants to support her work. She said, “I’m not unique. I spent hours putting together a math night at our school. Together, we make a beautiful community, but a budget is a moral document that is a reflection of your priorities. Will you use your power to support our struggle, because we are all in this together?”

Patrick Nietupski, a paraprofessional at Fort River in the AIMS (Academic Instructional Mainstream Support) program, said, “I work with some of our hardest students on their worst days. We do fun stuff: math camps, social group at basketball, and art groups. I make $20 per hour. I would be making $19 per hour, but the teachers gave us an extra dollar from their last contract. I can’t afford to live in this town. You bring in contractors to do the job because you won’t hire staff. They make more than us, and I have to train them, and then they are gone the next year.”

Dixie Luddy, a fellow AIMS para, agreed, and opined about the many contracted paras, one of whom was making what it took her 11 years to make. She said she lives in subsidized housing. “I love this town. I love this school. I love my coworkers and the children. I care a whole lot about this place. I don’t understand how we are hiring people from agencies who have no affinity to community. It doesn’t make sense.”

Tessa, an ARHS senior, said that the student body and student representative committee at the high school support the teachers. She said that students need them to stay after school for help and to work with committees. She concluded, ”They are such amazing people. I support the teachers, the school supports the teachers; the school committee should, too. “

Liz Elder, a fifth grade teacher at Wildwood for 24 years and former APEA leader with experience dealing with school committees, asserted that she has never seen a school committee that isn’t willing to meet with us in negotiations. “Do you really know what we do? This job has become increasingly more challenging. We are asked to do more and more with less and less. Amherst is touted as this wonderful place. It is because of these people. We are parents, we’re teachers, we’re therapists, we’re custodians. I feel like we aren’t appreciated. We love our students and our colleagues. We want it to be to the standard everyone believes we are at, and that’s not the reality. And we can’t keep up the level that we want. We need to be fairly compensated. “

A parent of an ARHS student and a teacher in South Hadley wanted to let the Amherst teachers know that South Hadley supports them. She asked the school committee to listen to intelligent folks and sit down at the table and use communication skills to settle a contract. She noted that in South Hadley, contract negotiations stalled for two years, and morale is dismal — and that is felt by the students. She reminded the school committee members that this is what they signed up for when they joined the committee.

Nick Juravich, a class of 2002 graduate, a history professor at UMass Boston and a former Rhodes Scholar, emailed that he had received a phenomenal education at ARHS from caring, committed educators. He said that today’s students deserve the same. He urged the school committee to invest in the educators, and by extension the students, by bargaining a fair contract with the APEA. He said that paraeducators deserve a living wage and teachers deserve more than a 2.5% raise when inflation is well over that.

Referring to the APEA decision to “work to rule” beginning this week, Oscar, a seventh grader, said he hopes the contract is resolved quickly because the clubs and extracurricular activities are part of the excellent experience at the regional schools.

The hour-long public comment period ended, and the teachers left the room singing “We Shall Overcome.”

The Regional School Committee then convened to discuss the upcoming budget.

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