Mediated contract negotiations have reached a standstill, leaving teachers with little bargaining room
By Ben Parra
On Thursday, February 2nd, the Amherst-Pelham Education Association (APEA), the union representing educators at Amherst and Pelham schools, held a community forum to address the state of its contract negotiations.
Dozens of community members gathered at Amherst Middle School to hear educators from across the district share about their experience and the impact that staffing shortages, uncompensated labor, and the lack of a resolved contract have on their work and wellbeing.
Teachers spoke in detail, describing the hard work they put into their jobs, praising their students and school community, and noting the pride and fulfillment they feel in their profession.
“I have never worked with such a dedicated crew of people,” said Jennifer Oliver, a teacher at Amherst Middle School who has worked in the district for 16 years. “It is easy to forget just how diligent, highly educated, progressive, talented, and committed our staff is.”
Feelings of burnout and disregard were shared across the panel. “I’m extremely tired,” said Will Lawrie, a kindergarten teacher at Pelham Elementary. “I’m tired of being expected to do everything we do outside of school so our students are successful. I’m tired of waiting for the school committee to negotiate our contracts…I’m tired of listening to school committee members who have not stepped foot in our school and still decide not to listen to our voices.”
“We go the extra miles,” said Oliver. “And we have run marathons of extra miles. We are surviving, not thriving. We are losing people, we are squandering their precious contributions.”
The APEA began negotiations with the district for a new contract over a year ago; the forum marked that the union had gone 395 days without a contract. In June of last year, the district moved from direct negotiations to mediation. In non-mediated negotiations, parties are required to adjust their proposals and make counter-offers so that they can meet the legal definition of bargaining in good faith. Mediation carries no such requirements; as such, the district has been able to repeatedly propose the same contract terms, bringing negotiations to a stand-still.
Much of the conflict stems from the school committee’s unwillingness to budge on cost of living adjustments (COLA) in the union contract. The school committee is proposing COLA increases of 2.5%, 2.5%, and 2% across three years. However, the committee is also proposing to add additional working days with no pay adjustment for Unit A of the union (professional teachers), which would offset the pay increase of the COLA offer, such that the net adjustment would be closer to 1.5%, 1.5%, and 1% for this group.
Facing inflation above 8%, the APEA is proposing increases of 3.25%, 4%, and 5% in 3 years for Unit A workers, and a total increase of 6% for Unit C (paraprofessionals) across the same time frame. These increases would cost the district $1.2 million, a figure that APEA members argue is well within reach, given the district’s current budget surplus of $8 million.
“We have not been properly staffed since the first day of school,” said Alex Lopez, a paraeducator at Summit Academy. “This isn’t just a matter of letting down our educators…we are proposing to take a loss so that our students don’t.”
In 2021, the district refused a wage increase for Unit C workers. In response, Unit A workers compromised their own cost of living adjustments from 1% to 0.6%, so that unit C workers could receive a $1/hr increase.
Amidst these negotiations, the district has increasingly passed greater health insurance costs on to workers, and is currently pushing to eliminate “reduction in force” (layoff) protections from the union contract, effectively meaning that jobs and hours can be cut with no calendar deadline.
“We offer students our best, so that they can be amazing at whoever they choose to be,” said Oliver, “but it comes at a human cost. Amherst values education, but it needs to remember to value the people who make it happen.”
Ben Parra is a reporter and librarian living in Easthampton.
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