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Teacher strike continues for fourteenth day amid contentious contract negotiations, budget disputes

An NTA contract agreement has not been met. Here’s why.
Nell Ranalli
Union members and supporters gather at the Education Center to rally for a fair contract Wednesday, Jan. 31.

As negotiations continue between the Newton Teachers Association (NTA) and the Newton School Committee, the terms of the new teacher contract are being hashed out in a contentious debate. The NTA and committee, of which Mayor Ruthanne Fuller is a member, have been having major disagreements, many of them stemming from a belief that the schools have been chronically underfunded. Multiple proposals from both parties have been rejected, although some compromises are starting to be made. The debate over a new contract led to NTA members voting to strike on Thursday, Jan. 18. As of Thursday, Feb. 1, the strike is still ongoing. 

The NTA rejected a proposed contract by the committee Tuesday, Jan. 30, which improved on Cost of Living Adjustments (COLA) and parental leave in comparison with previous School Committee offers, because it did not align with the NTA’s asks in terms of Unit C wages and coverage for social worker and substitutes.

According to English teacher Mike Shelgelmilch, “Every single educator today would rather be in the classroom than out here in the cold. It really says a lot that we’ve taken this step, and it’s because we think that this is what is necessary to fully fund our schools and to get a fair contract that’s going to support educators and students.” 

It is unclear whether or not the city would be able to meet the demands of the NTA. “If we were to agree to the union’s demands as they exist today, we would face extensive cuts to the system,” said Christopher Brezski, a committee member. The committee has communicated that they believe if the new contract was signed, 60 employees would lose their jobs this year, and 60 more would lose their jobs in the following five years. 

The NTA, however, claims that there is money in the city’s overall budget to pay for their proposed contract. “They’re blaming us for the cuts and they’re not blaming a mayor who simply has chronically underfunded the city while she sits on enormous amounts of free cash because she’s underestimated her revenues every year,” said Mike Zilles, NTA President.

The committee has proposed a lesser COLA. They have agreed to four years of inflation adjustment, but the percentage is still under negotiation. The committee is also still proposing paired-back teacher benefits, smaller non-COLA raises, and fewer available resources in comparison to the NTA’s proposed contract. 

However, the NTA claims that there is more money to give to the schools than the mayor and committee are offering. This is because of a surplus that has repeatedly been found in Newton’s budget during the last few budgets despite supposed deficits in the school budget. In the fiscal year of 2023 (FY23) there was supposedly a $5 million deficit in Newton’s school budget but a $28.6 million surplus in the city’s budget, and in FY22 there was a supposed $4-5 million deficit in the schools’ budgets, but then later a $5.3 million in surplus in the city’s budget. There are also one-time incomes, some of which are being directed to the school budget in an attempt to come to a contract agreement.

This budget inconsistency has made NTA supporters question the validity of budget constraints. “As a community member of Newton, a teacher in Newton for 17 years, I think it’s really foolish that we’re going through this,” said Mike Dailey, an NTA member. “I’ve been to cities and towns where they have real financial issues. Newton is not it,” he added.

As the strike continues, the NTA has faced fines totaling $475,000, since it is illegal in Massachusetts for public employees to strike. The NTA was brought to court to decide on additional repercussions in an attempt to end the strike. During the hearing, the judge decided to lower fines to $50,000 a day from the previous fine which was at $200,000 and doubled each day school had to be canceled.

The legality of striking has not, however, deterred the NTA. 

“We are doing something that’s illegal, and we are breaking a law, but it’s because it’s for the right cause,” said Andy Gutte, an NTA member. “We’re doing something that’s beneficial for students and beneficial for the school, and when there’s a just cause it’s the right thing to do to break the law,” he added.

The strike will continue until a fair contract has been reached, according to Zilles. “We won’t roll over. I think that’s what’s most frustrating. They think that somehow we’ll just accept what they’re offering and we won’t,” said Zilles.

At this point in time, it is not clear when school sessions will resume, but there has been some progress towards reaching an agreement. 

“We are fully committed to a resolution and return of our students and staff to the classroom as soon as possible,” said the committee. 

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