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Newton Teachers Association rallies during strike for fair contract, school committee takes legal action

NTA+members+and+supporters+rally+at+City+Hall+Friday%2C+Jan.+19.
Orlando Christian
NTA members and supporters rally at City Hall Friday, Jan. 19.

Newton Teachers Association (NTA) members picketed outside of North and held a rally at City Hall on their first day striking Friday, Jan. 19.

The strike, initiated today, was announced at a press conference held at City Hall the night before, Thursday, Jan. 18, following an NTA vote to strike.  The NTA’s membership voted 98 percent in favor of striking via a digital vote held on Thursday, Jan. 18. During the strike, all Newton Public Schools (NPS) schools remain closed and all school activities are canceled. 

“Your teachers and educators want to desperately be in the building. We would much rather be with our students today, but we need to do this to make sure that our students have the best education they can,” said Vice Principal Amy Winston, a member of the NTA.

The strike was a result of substantial disagreements during negotiations for teachers’ new contract and was an escalation of work-to-rule actions the NTA had taken in the months prior. 

“We feel like we have not been heard, and this is our last-ditch attempt to make our voices heard,” said English teacher Mike Schlegelmilch, an NTA building representative. 

All days missed from the strike will be made up at the end of the year, according to Michael Zilles, NTA President.

“The strike is a cumulative effect of our doing everything legally possible and having the school committee react completely irresponsibly to everything, and to believe that they can force us into a corner and impose a cheap contract on us,” said Zilles.

According to the Newton School Committee, which released a statement Tuesday, Jan. 16, “The committee does not waver in our commitment to settle a competitive contract that recognizes the dedication of our educators and supports our students. We believe a strike would do nothing to further negotiations and would only harm our students.” 

During the march, the NTA conducted a call-and-response chant. Passing cars honked their support. After looping around Newtonville, members of the NTA gathered around North. 

According to Schlegelmilch, one of the key points the NTA is pushing for in a new contract is increased student mental health support, social workers in every NPS school, and higher wages for classroom aides, and behavior therapists. 

“We are advocating for the resources that students deserve,” said Schlegelmilch. “This is about keeping NPS a great school system for students now and in the future.”

Because teachers do not have the right to strike in Massachusetts, the committee filed a strike petition with the Department of Labor Relations (DLR) on Tuesday, Jan. 16 as rumors of the strike were spreading. According to Fuller, a cease and desist was then issued by the Commonwealth Employment Relations Board (CERB) Thursday Jan. 18, and the CERB and NTA will go to superior court starting on either Friday, Jan. 19 or Monday, Jan. 22.

According to Fuller, the NTA could start receiving fines for the strike as soon as Monday, Jan. 22.

“Every day the NTA engages in an illegal strike, our kids lose important classroom time,” said Fuller in a Mayor update released on January 19th. Fuller added, “We call on the NTA to follow the law. Engage with Newton’s elected School Committee which is ready and waiting to settle a competitive, sustainable agreement.” 

Negotiation meetings between the NTA and the committee began at noon, Schlegelmilch added. 

“Our hope is that this signals a change in their negotiation tactics because for the last several months we have not been meeting at the same table. We’ve been going through a third-party mediator, which is really not a great way to come to an agreement because you’re trading proposals back and forth and waiting a long time to receive them,” said Schlegelmilch.

However, Fuller said this afternoon that she was “doubling down.”

At 1 p.m., the NTA held a rally at City Hall, which was attended by NPS students, parents, and NTA members. 

“Teachers should get fair contracts so I can go back to school,” said Graham Ansourian, a fourth grader from Angier Elementary, who attended the rally. 

While the rally was taking place, Mayor Fuller held a press conference inside Newton City Hall. 

We encourage the NTA to stop the illegal strike, get the kids back in the classroom, and have the adults at the negotiating table figuring out a competitive and sustainable salary,” said Fuller.

In response to the NTA’s claim that Fuller is refusing to spend a surplus of money on education, Fuller said that she has allocated all the funding and has always prioritized NPS.

“I wish there was even more money just sitting there in a closet waiting to be deployed,” said Fuller. “I believe in collective bargaining. It is important to negotiate. We want our teachers to have competitive salaries because our teachers are amazing. We want them here in Newton, but don’t get the kids involved. Keep the kids in the classroom while we adults figure out this contract,” said Fuller.

In an interview in September, Zilles said that “these are manufactured deficits.” He added that “there is money available, plenty of it. The mayor does not want to spend it on the schools and the committee wants a cheap contract.” 

According to the September interview with Zilles as well as another interview with Nolin that month, Mayor Ruthanne Fuller claimed a 4-5 million dollar deficit last year, but then later discovered a 5.3 million dollar surplus. From its several years of budget surplus in addition to excess money received from a settled lawsuit, Newton has accrued over $40 million in free cash.

The starting salary for teacher’s aids is $27 thousand a year, according to Spanish teacher Ana Tellado, a member of the NTA. 

“We’re fighting for a living wage for our classroom aides and behavior therapists who work with students who have some of the highest needs in the district. If we cannot offer a living wage to those employees, we are not going to be able to recruit competitively and keep excellent people in those positions. This negatively impacts students with some of the highest needs,” Shlegelmilch added.

History teacher John Fitzgerald, a member of the NTA said, “We hope that the mayor realized that she’s not supported by the people of Newton. They do want schools to be fully funded. So far, the support from the community has been enormous. We hope the strike can end quickly.” 

The Mayor’s office refused to reply in person to The Newtonite’s requests for comment.

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