Still No Contract. Amherst/Pelham Educators Rally Again 


Teachers from Amherst Regional Middle School address the crowd at the APEA's Rally For A Fair Contract on April 11. Photo: Art Keene

Bargaining Takes A Hopeful Turn

Roughly 200 Amherst/Pelham Educators and their allies rallied in front of the schools’ district offices at the Amherst Regional Middle School on Tuesday afternoon (4/11) to protest the absence of progress in their negotiations for a fair contract. The educators have been working for 15 months without a contract. The educators were joined by allies from other area unions, retired teachers from the MTA Wisdom Warriors, parents, and students. The rally, the second in recent weeks to be held just prior to the beginning of a bargaining session, was one of several public demonstrations since bargaining stalled (see here, here, here, and here). Those assembled alternated between enthusiastically shouting “pro contract” chants and hearing brief speeches from several local educators. 

Wide Gap Persists Between Union Demands And School Committee Offers
The union and the school committee have been at an impasse since the school committee broke off direct negotiations last June and imposed mediation.

Parents were in the crowd in support of Amherst/Pelham educators at the rally for a fair contract on April 11. Photo: Art Keene

The Amherst Pelham Education Association (APEA), the union representing, teachers, paraeducators, and clerical staff in the Amherst and Pelham schools, is seeking a 3.25% increase to teacher and clerical staff salaries this year, followed by 4% and 5% increases for the next two years. They have asked for a 6% raise for paraeducators to compensate them for their “challenging and necessary work”.  Paraeducators are currently paid at a starting rate of $17.11/hour. Even the requested increases would not keep pace with inflation, they explain; the increase in the cost of living in 2022 was over 7 percent, but last year, teachers and staff received a meager 0.6 percent increase and in 2020, they received a 1.5 percent raise.

The union points out that among the ways that salary increases are not keeping pace with escalating costs is in the area of health insurance, the burden of which increasingly falls on school employees. In 2022–’23, the increase in health insurance costs was 3.8%, and in 2023–’24, the projected increase in health insurance is 7.94%.  According to the APEA, “The union estimates that all of the requested COLA [Cost of Living Allowance] increases would not exceed $1.2 million in the budget” and that there is “$8 million in unencumbered [town funds] that could be used.” 

Amherst School Committee Chair Allison McDonald has said that the School Committee has made four proposals for a COLA increase in response to the union’s original request  of an annual 9% increase. The first proposal, in March of 2022, was for 2% each year for three years. The second, in June, was 2.5% for one year followed by 2% for the next two. The third, in November, was 2.5% for two years followed by 2% in the third year. The School Committee’s latest offer at the end of March 2023 was for 2.75% per year for three years.

A group of students from People of Color United at Amherst Regional High School showed up at the Rally for a Fair Contract on April 11 to lead a chant in support of teachers. Photo: Art Keene

However, educators said this does not fairly compensate them for their work. They noted that they have steadily lost ground in their capacity to support themselves over the last six years. In 2021, teachers willingly took a mere 0.6% COLA — a concession to allow paras to gain a $1/hr increase. (Meanwhile, the district gave back $700,000 of unspent funds to the municipalities that year.) In 2020, educators received a 1.5% COLA. In 2019, they received a 2% COLA. In 2018, most educators received only a $300 increase. In 2017, they received a 1.5% COLA. And in 2016, they received a 1% COLA. 

APEA held an in-person membership meeting on March 29 to take a straw poll on the most recent offer from the School Committee. The membership voted overwhelmingly to reject the offer of 2.75% cost-of-living pay increase over the course of three years, and to continue to negotiate. They gave the bargaining team a mandate to continue negotiations in the hope that a resolution would be reached on April 11.

The APEA bargaining team has acknowledged some of the recent gains in the bargaining process. , such as for example, the School Committee dropping its proposal to add two more working days to the calendar, and agreeing to some differential pay for certain specialized roles. But they were not as sanguine as school Ccommittee Chair Allison McDonald, who had described the progress as “significant”. McDonald said that in addition to the 2.75% cost-of-living offer, the committee has added multiple increases for paraeducators, including an additional 3.5% increase for those at the top of the pay scale, and a significant reclassification of clerical staff,  that offers with an additional 5% to 10% increase for the lowest paid clerical staff. McDonald said the offer is higher than some contracts in the state recently settled for the same timespan, including South Hadley, Belmont, Duxbury, Rockland, Sudbury, and Swansea, and is “in the same ballpark” as several others, including Northampton. “The fact is that our districts already offer compensation packages that are among the strongest in our area, and that will remain competitive under our proposal,” McDonald said.

The union responded, on March 26, to McDonald’s enthusiasm with a statement from its executive committee on March 26, labeling the latest offer “disrespectful” and condemning the School Committee for its failure to make a serious effort to resolve the dispute after 15 months. The end-of-March statements of the School Committee and the union can be viewed here.

The APEA feels the bargaining is moving in a positive direction. Unit A COLA was not discussed at all, but progress was made on Unit B (clerical) and Unit C (paraeducator) contracts. The APEA looks forward to more negotiation on April 26.”

Claire Cocco, APEA Communications Chair

Latest Bargaining Session Hopeful
Following the bargaining session on April 11, Claire Cocco, Communications Chair for the APEA said, “The APEA feels the bargaining is moving in a positive direction. Unit A COLA was not discussed at all, but progress was made on Unit B (clerical) and Unit C (paraeducator) contracts. The APEA looks forward to more negotiation on April 26. The APEA observes that while the district is cutting teachers and paraeducators, the district today (4/12) posted for a newly created administrative position (transportation director).”

Read More: Schools Reach Tentative Deal With Administrators Union In Amherst, Pelham. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

Educators’ Frustration Shared At Rally
Liz Elder, a teacher at Wildwood Elementary School, underscored that in a community that claims to value education, educators and the work that they do is not respected. She stressed how hard it is to do the work under current conditions.

“This job gets harder and harder every year. This community [of educators] ‘is’ the school district. We’re the glue. We hold it together year after year. During COVID there was a lot of talk of how we’re not going to rush things anymore, and we’re going to leave time for creativity, and we’re going to get back to…giving kids what they need and take the time to figure out what that is, and do things that bring us joy. And now …it feels like a grind. It’s more, more, more! We want you to do more with less — with fewer paras, less money, fewer supplies, dirtier rooms. We are not doing what we really want to be doing with kids …and this has been going on for years, this work creep, since I negotiated my first contract back in the early 2000s. And I said to a colleague today, I’m exhausted and I don’t know how much longer I can do this. 

“But who wants to work in a school that doesn’t pay you a living wage? This is about the people who are making the least, doing the most — we don’t even know half the things that they’re doing. They’re trained to keep our students with the highest needs safe. They support students who aren’t even on their caseloads.”

Molly Cooksey, Fort River/Caminantes kindergarten teacher speaking in support of paraeducators.

Molly Cooksey, a former paraeducator and a current kindergarten teacher in the Caminantes dual language program at Fort River, emphasized the invaluable work done by Amherst’s paraeducators and the need to support them. She said, “We really need to refocus our energy as a community on our paras and their dignity. My para is bilingual and an extremely talented educator, and she gets pulled all over the school to cover [classes] any time one of our Spanish-speaking teachers is out. And she does it willingly and with grace. But who wants to work in a school that doesn’t pay you a living wage? This is about the people who are making the least, doing the most — we don’t even know half the things that they’re doing. They’re trained to keep our students with the highest needs safe. They support students who aren’t even on their caseloads. They don’t have to, but they do it because they love the kids. They show up early. They bring in snacks and host out-of-school events. Nobody asks them to do this, but they do it anyway.” To the paraeducators in the crowd, she said, “We see you. You are at the center of our fight.”

Across the river, people in Northampton organized to get support for a slate of people running for school committee, to change the way schools operate there. We can do that here. We might win this fight [for a fair contract] but we need to be organized in the fall for election season because in order to be sustainable we need people on the School Committee who really value education and value educators.”

Mick O’Connor, Amherst Regional Middle School teacher

Mick O’Connor, a teacher at Amherst Regional Middle School, reminded those assembled of the power of organizing, and encouraged them to take the struggle to the ballot box and the November town elections. He said, “You have found that when other educators’ unions across Massachusetts have come together and organized, and have been persistent, that they’ve had some significant wins. This tells us that we need to keep fighting. And this [gathering here today] is what fighting looks like. And it also looks like lawn signs. And it also looks like reaching out to other members of the community, sharing your thoughts with the Town Council, and the Town Manager, and the School Committee.” He urged the crowd on, saying, “This is how winning happens. You being here signifies that you are committed. But we need to up our commitment if we are going to be successful. Tell other people who care why you show up, and that they need to show up, too… One of our mandates as educators in this commonwealth is to teach students how to be socially active, how to fight for social justice. Not only are we here today fighting for ourselves but we are showing a valuable part of our curriculum in action.”

“Across the river, people in Northampton organized to get support for a slate of people running for school committee,” he continued, “to change the way schools operate there. We can do that here. We might win this fight [for a fair contract] but we need to be organized in the fall for election season because in order to be sustainable we need people on the School Committee who really value education and value educators.”

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4 thoughts on “Still No Contract. Amherst/Pelham Educators Rally Again 

  1. I offer the below corrections to some incorrect statements in this article:

    (1) APEA members have been working under an expired contract for 8 months (since August 2022), not 15 months. Our negotiations for a new contract have gone on for 15+ months.

    (2) The School Committee did not impose mediation (nor can it). The SC submitted a request for mediation to the state Department of Labor Relations. After a review by the DLR, which included meetings with each party, the DLR found that we had reached impasse and appointed a mediator to assist.

    (3) The recently posted position is not a new position nor is it an administrative position. It is titled “Transportation Coordinator,” the incumbent will be retiring, and the position is a member of the AFSCME union.

    As the Regional SC wrote in its email to the ARPS community on Tuesday, our groups continued to make progress at Tuesday’s mediation meeting, reaching tentative agreements in several additional areas. Although we haven’t yet been able to reach tentative agreement on all contract items, we spent our time in mediation tonight exchanging new approaches and ideas in several areas where we’ve struggled in the past to find common ground.

    We look forward to our next meeting with the APEA bargaining team on April 26.

  2. Thank you Ms. McDonald for keeping us on our toes and making sure the community has accurate facts. In that, I would like to correct some recent inaccurate statements that you and others on the School Committee have made to local media outlets.

    1. At a Budget Coordinating Group meeting on 3/31/23 you claimed that over 60% of the town budget goes to ARPS, yet on page 1 of the 2023 Budget adopted by the Amherst Town Council, the pie chart says 47% of the town budget goes to ARPS. See here:
    2. In the Daily Hampshire Gazette, and Mass-Live/The Republican you have said the average teacher salary is nearly $86,000. However, after a public records request was made, I averaged all teacher’s salaries based on the data that ARPS provided, and the average teacher salary was $64,200. The average for all ARPS employees, including but not limited to teachers was $56,000. The previous APEA contract said the teacher scales range from $43,000 to $91,000. In addition, due to the cuts that the RSC has proposed making, the draft budget claims the realized savings for the district from firing ARPS teachers is $65,000 per employee. If you claim the average teacher salary is $86,000, why are the savings from firing a teacher over $20,000 less than that? This goes all without mentioning paraprofessional pay, which starts at $19,000 per year and was not included when averaging just teacher pay. I go to school at ARHS every day, and will note that paraprofessionals often sub-in for and take the roles of a teacher in my classes.

    Regardless of your opinion on the APEA negotiations, or the Town’s budgeting process, I completely agree with you that everyone should aim to be as accurate as possible in their deliberations. Given that would you please either educate me on how you have came up with such information, or correct the statements publicly?

    Thank you for all your work representing our community on the School Committee, and for the recent progress made in negotiations. I wish you all the best as you move forward in bargaining and budgeting.

  3. Julian, thank you for your questions.

    1. In my comments about the Town of Amherst spending on public schools, including what I wrote in the Gazette, I’ve stated that the Town invests “60% of its annual operating budget” on our elementary and regional schools combined. The figure and chart that you cite are also accurate, those just include non-operating budget items such as non-discretionary spending (including debt service, retirement, Other Post-Employment Benefits/OPEB, and State assessments), as well as capital spending. These items are not part of the “operating budget” which is what I have referenced in my comments.

    2. In my public presentations, statements and columns, I have referenced the data on average teacher salaries from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Contrary to what some have stated, that is a straight calculation of our total spending on teacher salaries divided by the number of teachers in a district. In my presentation at the Amherst “State of the Town” in December, the data for 2019/20 was the most recent available data — for Amherst elementary schools, the average teacher salary was $80,338; for Regional secondary schools, the average was $85,588. DESE has updated its website with data for 2020/21: Amherst average teacher salary was $83,719 and in the Regional schools it was $84,020. (A change year over year reflects not just contractual changes but also the relative mix of experience levels and thus salaries of the individuals employed that year. So, for example, the average salary could decline when senior staff retire and new staff are hired at lower “steps.”)

    3. The data in the public records report that you have is actual gross pay and includes an important explanation on how to read and interpret that data — including that some staff (including teachers and paraeducators) have responsibilities in multiple districts so their salaries are “split” between the different districts in which they serve. And, some staff may have worked part-time, or worked part-time as a paraeducator and part-time as a teacher, or part-time as a teacher and part-time as administrator, or may have taken a leave during a given year. So, a straight average on gross pay would not be equivalent to the DESE average since that is based on the number of “full-time equivalents” not on the number of individuals.

    4. When considering the budget impacts of a reduction in staffing, the district takes into consideration the contractual language around seniority. This means that positions with the least seniority and thus at the lower end of their unit’s pay scale may be more likely impacted than those with the most seniority and at the higher end of their pay scale. So, the budget impact per position might be lower than the average, especially in districts like ours where many of our staff are at the higher end of our pay scales.

    I hope this is helpful.

  4. Thank you for clarifying and explaining how you find your numbers, which seem to be a relatively different than how I reached mine. I appreciate you taking the time to go into it, and will spend time over the school break to dig into the numbers more.

    It is also worth noting that using DESE’s numbers, a 3.25% raise, which is what is being requested in year 1 by the APEA, would still mean Amherst teachers are being paid below the state average of 87,000, which is found using DESE’s model.

    To use the DESE model or my gross pay model is up to one’s discretion, however, one could argue that gross pay is closer to the actual living conditions and compensation packages teacher’s are experiencing in their work.

    Does DESE publish similar figures for all school staff? As it is equally important that we do not forget about paraprofessionals, office staff, librarians, janitors, etc, who make our schools a great place to be.

    Thank you again for clarifying your position. I believe the more understanding we can get, will hopefully create more unity on this issue.

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