Negotiation Frustration

by Bella Ishanyan and Matan Josephy
Graphics by Julie Wang

The red shirts have turned blue, sported on Tuesdays by educators around the building — a sign that contract negotiations are underway. The Newton Teachers Association (NTA) leadership wants their members to increase engagement amid negotiations between the NTA and the School Committee, which officially began in mid-October, amidst a tenser backdrop than usual.

While the teacher strikes in neighboring towns have not yet faded into the public’s memory, a drastic increase in the cost of living in the city due to pandemic-related inflation, Newton’s first override since 2013 and recent developments regarding the School Committee’s negotiations sub-committee have mounted pressure to come to an agreement during an especially unstable time in Newton’s education system.

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Bargaining Table

While the current contract does not expire until Aug. 31 and negotiations are still underway, NTA President Michael Zilles said that both parties have taken an interest in concluding negotiations as quickly as possible. However, he said, the School Committee has not responded to NTA proposals with the requisite urgency. He said that negotiations are moving slowly as a result.

“When we [first] sat down at the table and negotiated ground rules, they were concerned about fast-tracking the negotiations to get it done by February,” he said. “It’s confusing because they haven’t even put their focal points on the table yet and they haven’t responded to us.”

Negotiations are regulated by a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), a written legal contract between an employer and an employee union that itself must be negotiated. The terms of a CBA include any element of work pertaining to the compensation of conditions of employees.

While no regular public updates on negotiations from the School Committee are available, regular summaries of each negotiating session posted on the NTA’s website depict the sessions as tense and riddled with conflict.

In a Dec. 3 update posted following the conclusion of the third negotiation session, Zilles, along with NTA Vice President Elizabeth Del Porto and Treasurer Christine Walsh, described the School Committee’s initial proposals to the NTA. Among these were limits on the employee usage of sick days, restrictions on access to special education services by children of educators living outside of Newton and a proposal for the district to return students prior to Labor Day — all of which  the NTA labeled as “ill-conceived…punitive concessions.”

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Newton Negotiates

Zilles said that much of the NTA’s focus throughout the negotiations has been toward promoting an environment of respect and positivity.

“Across the nation, there has been a decline in morale in the teaching profession … The feeling that ‘I’m not respected and valued’ is here in Newton too,” he said. “[The School Committee] is not recognizing this is an issue — morale in that way of not feeling respected as a professional.”

In separate interviews, members of NPS’ negotiating team from both the School Committee and central administration said that the district’s negotiating proposals came from a place of financial necessity and are designed to limit spending amidst a tumultuous forecast.

School Committee Vice Chair Kathy Shields, who is a co-chair of its negotiations subcommittee, said that there is no room in the budget for certain expenses.

“We are in a budgetary position that is very tight,” she said. “We can’t spend money we don’t have.”  

Other members of the School Committee on other negotiations teams were unavailable for comment.

Toby Romer, Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Education and Special Programs, said that the district has to balance competing priorities when pursuing a contract with the NTA.

“Our budget goal was to maintain the current level of service provided to students and build a sustainable budget over time,” he said. “We have to, within this really tough financial situation, negotiate with the NTA and figure out a fair raise for teachers to keep up with the cost of living and recognize their good work at a time when inflation is really high and the cost of everything is going up.” 

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Overriding Principle

Amidst rising nationwide inflation and projected financial shortfalls, Mayor Ruthanne Fuller put forth a multimillion dollar tax override designed to raise funds for municipal services, chief among them NPS. 

The March 14 vote poses Newton’s first override since 2013. Proposed by Fuller and placed on the ballot by the City Council, the override would allow Newton to bypass state-mandated restrictions on annual property tax increases to bolster funding for NPS and the city’s other operations. It would infuse an approximate additional $4.5 million into the NPS budget.

An unsuccessful override would create a budget shortfall of between $6 million and $8 million ― a deficit that would require sweeping cuts across the district. 

In a Jan. 23 presentation to the School Committee, Interim Superintendent Kathleen Smith and Chief Financial Officer Liam Hurley proposed two budgets for SY 2023-2024 contingent on the override vote’s result. If the override fails, Smith and Hurley said that between 40 and 50 educator positions would be eliminated, and NPS would see increased class sizes, decreased elective options and reduced academic and social-emotional support.

Irrespective of the override’s outcome, NPS will still face a budget gap. A successful override, however, would shrink the deficit to approximately $2 million — low enough for the district to maintain its current level of services without major educational cuts.

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A New Face

Along with School Committee member Paul Levy, labor attorney Elizabeth Valerio, partner at the law firm Valerio, Dominello & Hillman, is a new face on the negotiations team. In the summer of 2022, she was hired as outside counsel for the School Committee, after working in several neighboring towns. 

Valerio was unable to respond to interview requests for an interview; however, the Roar confirmed her presence in at least half a dozen districts throughout Massachusetts, including Ashland, Arlington, Beverly, Brookline and New Bedford. 

In interviews with out-of-district union officials, teachers and School Committee members, the Roar found dueling portrayals of Valerio: one as an effective and experienced lawyer skilled at bringing negotiations to an efficient conclusion, another as an inflexible counsel whose rigor hampered progress.

In Arlington, School Committee member William Hayner praised Valerio’s conduct and status as a nonpartisan counsel versed in state law. 

“She’s excellent. She’s able to bring a good perspective,” he said. “Some attorneys push themselves on you, but what she does is provide information. If she doesn’t think you’re making the right decision, she explains to you what the consequences might be. If you still want to go there, she’d let you go and then you discover it.”

Still, Hayner  — a former teacher in the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District — acknowledged that many may view Valerio less favorably.

“If Liz Valerio would have come to Groton-Dunstable 20 years ago, I would probably be saying the same things because the attitude in [the negotiating room] was toxic from both sides,” he said. 

The Arlington Educators Association declined requests for an interview, but said in a statement that negotiations with Valerio have been “rigorous, but ultimately fair and reasonable.”

Valerio’s most recent contract negotiation was with the Brookline School Committee, which led to a teacher strike in May 2022 after three years of negotiations. The strike lasted a day and resulted from an impasse in negotiations between the Brookline Educators Union (BEU) and the Brookline School Committee. 

Andy Liu, vice chair of the Brookline School Committee, said that Valerio is known for her skill and persistence at the negotiating table. 

“She’s an extremely, extremely competent [and] forceful advocate,” he said. “She has a lot of institutional memory, far more than any individual school committee member, probably.” 

Members of the BEU painted a far more critical picture of Valerio. BEU President Jessica Wender-Shubow said that, throughout the union’s negotiations with the School Committee, Valerio was known for employing increasingly aggressive tactics both inside and outside the bargaining room on behalf of the Brookline School Committee.

“[Valerio was] cutthroat,” she said. “She’s used every single possible legal strategy and every single element of the law and regulation that favors the boss. She’s leading with it.”

However, Wender-Shubow said that Valerio’s presence in Brookline’s negotiations formed just one part of a larger trend in which contract negotiations become increasingly dominated by lawyers detached from the realities inside school buildings.

“It’s no different than hiring union-busting lawyers to break up [unionization] attempts, say, of Starbucks workers,” she said.

BEU negotiations chair Eric Schiff said that despite Valerio’s controversial status, her behavior is only reflective of the school committee that hired her.

“The School Committee hires her, so anything she’s doing is at their behest,” he said. “She can be very condescending, she can be very dismissive, she can make people feel bad, but they hired her. So I placed my anger and my displeasure with the School Committee, not with Ms. Valerio. If I had a lawyer, I’d want her. She’s good at what she does.”

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A Rising Cost

One of the key negotiation points that Valerio will work on is the NPS contract’s cost of living adjustment (COLA). COLAs are a regular increase in educator pay designed to address the impact of inflation; as prices hit record highs, such adjustments have only achieved more prominence. COLA increases, alongside other benefits, ensure that salaries in Newton remain competitive and that the district continues to attract talent.

In the last year, Massachusetts teachers have achieved substantial COLA increases: an agreement struck in July will ensure Boston educators receive extended benefits and a 9.5% pay rise throughout the contract’s three-year span. Brookline’s May 2022 contract will include a 6% raise through 2023, an 8% raise from 2023 to 2026 and an additional 1% in the fall of 2026.    

The NTA’s Nov. 21 bargaining proposal outlined a 7.5% COLA effective September 2023, followed by dual increases of 4.5% for 2024 and 2025. 

As Newton faces rising costs, inflationary pressure and an uncertain financial future, Shields said that COLA increases may only come with sharp reductions elsewhere. 

“We need to have a balanced budget. And so it may be the case where … in order to afford COLAs, that means a reduction in the number of staff, whether it’s classroom teachers or other staff,” she said. “I think it’s too early to say at this point.”

Zilles said that the district’s proposals fail to meet the standards of treatment granted to other teachers across Massachusetts.

“Other districts are finding the means to pay their teachers and educators reasonable cost of living increases,” he said. What is [Newton] thinking?”  

Meanwhile, Shields said that Newton’s educator salaries and COLA increases have been the gold standard when compared to that of neighboring municipalities and that the city is working to maintain that standard.

“When you look at how we stack up against surrounding districts, … you can see that we look pretty good on those tables. But over time, those other districts will have increases in their teachers’ pay, and so remaining competitive with other districts is something that’s really important because we don’t want our educators leaving simply because of monetary issues,” she said.

At their Jan. 2 negotiating session, the district’s team presented NTA representatives with comparisons between teachers’ salaries within NPS and those of 24 other neighboring school districts. The NPS presentation found that NPS has higher rates of teacher retention than nearly every neighboring school district, and salaries consistent with its peers.

In a statement published shortly after the presentation, the NTA said that its justification for COLA increases rests not on comparison to other school districts, but on inflationary pressures and that the comparisons brought forward by the district were incomplete.

A Roar review of figures provided by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education verified many of the comparisons made by the district’s presentation. However, it also found that when examining salaries in nearby districts most comparable to Newton by demographics and income, such as Brookline, Needham and Wellesley, average salaries in Newton ranked uniformly last.

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The Road Ahead

As educators returned from winter break, the NTA announced plans to mobilize its membership. In addition to encouraging educators to wear their union t-shirts, the NTA is planning further steps, like rallies and community outreach.

In response, Romer said that unions have a right to support their membership — but the focus remains on the negotiating table.

“Teachers unions have a right to advocate for their positions and mobilize their membership to advocate for higher wages. We welcome people to do that. That’s part of the collective bargaining process,” he said. “And we just continue to negotiate, trying to come to the table with fair and thoughtful proposals, trying to try to reach an agreement. That’s the bottom line.”

Should the discussions intensify, Zilles said that he expects Valerio, the School Committee and the rest of the negotiating team to remain resolute.

“We think they are going to fight harder,” Zilles said. “And they’re going to fight.” 

However, in an update published following a Jan. 25 negotiation session, the NTA said that progress was made. In a statement, Zilles, Del Porto and Walsh said that “This week we felt, for the first time … like we were really bargaining.”

Smith, whose term as Interim Superintendent concludes prior to the contract’s Aug. 31 expiration, but who remains involved in the negotiating process, said that the Jan. 29 negotiations signaled a positive shift.

“I do agree with the union that we made significant progress,” she said. “I thought the tenor was good … so the discussion was healthy.”

The NTA said that agreements had been reached on pay for entry-level administrative and coordinating staff and that the negotiations teams were close to agreeing on sick day allowances for illness of friends and family. However, its leadership cautioned that much more is to come — and that many elements of the process may remain unknown until the override vote’s conclusion.

Still, Smith said that headway is being made despite the challenges schools nationwide have been facing and that the foundation of the negotiations are strong because of both parties’ mutual interest in resolve. 

“I am so pleased with my relationship with the President, the members of his executive team of the NTA, and the teachers …  We always put the best interest of our students first and look at the concerns of our community,” she said. “It’s a challenging time right now in education. I’ve been in education for 45 years, and I have seen some of the most challenging times in my career during these past three or four years. It’s challenging serving as a superintendent, as an elected official, and you have to find that common ground, keep the lines of communication open, and develop strong relationships.”

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