Teachers cut back extras in protest; State examines labor charge in Watertown

The Boston Globe
September 11, 2011 Sunday

BYLINE: By Megan McKee, Globe Correspondent

SECTION: REGIONAL; West; Pg. 3

LENGTH: 888 words

As Watertown teachers greeted their new students with high-fives and hugs last week, the state’s Department of Labor Relations was wrapping up its probable cause investigation into allegations the School Committee had used bad-faith bargaining tactics with teachers, who have started their second year without a union contract.

Besides the “Fair Contract Now” buttons that many have been wearing, some teachers are following through on their promises to scale back numerous voluntary activities – such as field trips, coming in to work early, buying school supplies with their own money, and updating their websites – until the contract is settled, according to parents.

“Watertown teachers are beginning their second year without a settled contract,” said Debra King, president of the Watertown Educators Association. “The School Committee voted down their own agreement . . . This unprecedented action caused teachers to cease certain voluntary activities such as purchasing supplies with our own money. We have decided to continue to perform certain voluntary activities such as writing college recommendations.”

King did not list other activities that teachers are scaling back or continuing, despite Globe requests for specific answers. And neither the school superintendent nor any principals responded to inquiries about what they’ve heard or seen from teachers since the start of the year.

Instead, parents say they’ve gotten bits of information filtered through their children, while they are left to wonder what exactly is happening with union contract negotiations.

“I generally think there’s a lack of information . . . the parents are really in the dark about what’s happening in negotiations,” said Matt MacDonald, whose daughter just started first grade. MacDonald has been using his programming and research skills to analyze school data and explore the issues in-depth at his website, www.mattmacdonald.com.

He said that he and many parents would like a role in negotiations, even if just as observers.

Tony Paolillo, chairman of the Watertown School Committee, said the sticking point is salaries. He said the School Committee is loath to agree to a three-year contract that promises across-the-board salary increases when the economic situation could mean less local aid and continuing budget gaps for communities.

“The main focus has been uncertainty,” he said. “These are different times . . . you can’t negotiate the way you normally would.”

In April, the School Committee voted down a contract, 5 to 3, after teachers thought they finally had an agreement with the committee after 18 months of negotiations and the involvement of a mediator.

The rejected contract would have given teachers no raise for the previous school year; a 1.5 percent raise for the current school year; and a 2.5 percent raise next year.

The teachers are slated to get $415,000 in salary increases for education and experience this year no matter what, according to town officials.

The union filed a complaint with the state in June, alleging the School Committee engaged in bad-faith bargaining.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Labor Relations said the probable cause investigation was scheduled to close this past Friday. In about four weeks, the department will decide whether the case proceeds or is dismissed, said spokeswoman Alison Harris.

King said in the spring that teachers would scale back voluntary activities such as field trips, tutoring, and after-school activities in September if a contract wasn’t in place.

Many teacher websites haven’t been updated since the spring. “Due to the current state of contract negotiations, this Web page will no longer be updated” is the message that most often greets visitors to those sites.

“The `scaling back’ action is awful for morale, and upsetting for kids and parents. I know many teachers who are hoping it will be a wake-up to just how much teachers do. Others worry that it is self-defeating, but feel they have no other options,” said Janet Scudder, who has a child in high school and another who recently graduated.

“The high school teachers are e-mailing students from home to help them with projects and to get information to parents because there won’t be any class websites anymore. No trips? No school newspaper? No clubs? No tutoring hours? Yes, students and parents are very affected by it,” said Scudder.

Allison McCary, a parent who started the “Watertown Residents for Strong Schools” Facebook page, said it’s hard to figure out exactly what’s happening since neither the union nor the School Committee is giving straight answers.

“Honestly, I don’t like the way it is dividing our community, pitting parent against parent as to which side is to blame,” she said.

MacDonald said that his goal throughout the contract dispute has been to understand the complexities of the issues from all sides, but the reality is that the town just isn’t taking in enough money to support across-the-board teacher raises.

“I’d be very happy to pay them a lot more money, but if the revenue isn’t there to match up with the contract, it’s just an untenable situation,” he said. “I’d be the first in line to support these teachers if I could. Just knowing the financial situation, it’s just not the place I can be in.”

Megan McKee can be reached at megan.mckee@gmail.com

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