The Wellesley Educators Association (WEA), frustrated by working without a contract since last summer, and by the School Committee’s recent move to file with the State for mediation, held a public webinar on Jan. 4 to plead its case to the community. About a dozen WEA members and panelists were on hand to make a presentation explaining point-by-point their “Fair Five” contract campaign, and to field questions from among the 67 attendees.
In a Dec. 7 email notification to Wellesley Public Schools families regarding the decision to file for mediation, the School Committee said although the two sides have reached agreement on a significant number of contract points, “we have been unable to make further progress on the remaining items. As such, we believe negotiations are at an impasse…”
The WEA, which wants to return to the bargaining table, couldn’t disagree more, and in response exercised its right to file for an objection to mediation with the State.
The School Committee’s request for mediation and the WEA’s objection to such will be reviewed by the state’s Department of Labor Relations, which will direct the two sides to either return to the bargaining table (the WEA’s preference) or accept the step of working with a mediator to come to an agreement (the School Committee’s preference).
The WEA’s “Fair Five Now” platform spans issues such as parental leave; due process during individual contract disputes; wages (particularly for teaching assistants and paraprofessionals); prep time for elementary school teachers; and specialists’ scheduling. The WEA provides details on its website.
The School Committee says that it does not comment on in-process contract negotiations. Linda Chow, vice chair of the School Committee, in an email said, “Out of respect for the process, no members of the administration or School Committee were in attendance at last night’s webinar. We do not have information on when mediation might begin. We do know that the WEA has filed an objection to our petition for mediation with the Department of Labor Relations. We are waiting to hear from the DLR about next steps. The School Committee believes that a neutral mediator can help resolve the impasse we have with the WEA to reach a fair settlement. We are looking forward to the process and hope to reach agreements as soon as possible.”
The School Committee held an executive session (behind closed doors) on Tuesday, Jan. 10 to discuss its collective bargaining strategy.
What families wanted to know
During the Q&A part of the one-hour WEA webinar, families asked for details about the proposed parental leave. “So what is it that staff is looking for? Is it one month? Three months?” asked one attendee.
Kyle Gekopi, president of the 713-member WEA union, took on that question. “We’re asking for eight paid weeks that are not taken out of vacation, not taken out of sick time. These are paid parental weeks. And then an additional four taken with sick days,” for an all-encompassing 12 weeks of parental leave.
He noted that some school systems have opted into the Massachusetts Paid Family Medical Leave program that took effect Jan. 1, 2021, however, Wellesley was not one of them. That program, funded through employee and employer contributions, offers up to 26 weeks of paid leave for family or medical reasons to eligible employees in Massachusetts.
Another question on families’ minds concerned the financial implications and the budget limitations of the WEA’s asks.
WEA union member Ryan Liacos kicked the money question back to the audience member, suggesting they ask the School Committee about the budget implications of the union’s requests. “I think they’re having a similar forum tomorrow. That would be an awesome question to ask them.”
Although the School Committee did, indeed, hold a meeting the next day for high school families, it was part of its regular and informal school-by-school Q&A tour, not a public forum put together in response to the WEA webinar. The School Committee says that it does not publicly discuss in-process contract negotiations. (A source tells us that a hot topic at that meeting was standards-based grading at the high school.)
Liacos said questions premised on budgetary and funding concerns “kind of implies that there’s a ceiling that you can put on paying a living wage for people. Wellesley Education Association is not going to settle for less than a living wage for our educators, and that’s kind of the bottom line. Budget funding shouldn’t come into play when we’re talking about a living wage for our educators.”
Families also wanted to know, in the opinion of the WEA, where cuts could be made. Professional development was one area where educators thought money was being wasted. “We spend a lot of money on professional development,” one educator said, questioning the wisdom of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on programs of questionable value rather than “still not paying for our teachers working with our most vulnerable students.”
The “S” word
Yes, the word “strike” came out in response to an audience question. It’s a step no one seems to have an appetite for. Not the educators on the panel who stressed over and over how much they loved their jobs, their students, the families. Not families who stressed over and over how much they respected educators and the jobs they did.
“That’s the last thing we want to do,” said elementary school music teacher Matthew Polletto. “We absolutely want to avoid that, which is why we’re reaching out to you.”
Desperate times, desperate measures
Hardy Elementary 3rd grade teacher Karen Poole laid it on the line for webinar attendees. “We love what we do, that’s why we do it. We’ve been through a lot, especially during the pandemic, and one of the things that really struck us as educators is how much kid had to change, parents had to change, educators had to change.”
She said during the pandemic they felt the community’s support.
“With this contract, Poole said, “what makes it really difficult is that we feel that the School Committee is not behind us, that they don’t value us, they don’t value the work that we do. So we’re reaching out to you tonight to get your support. Although we love what we do, we can’t continue to be taken advantage of. We need to stand up for what’s right.”
Besides waiting for the Department of Labor Relations’ decision on whether a mediator will get involved in contract negotiations, the WEA will continue their protests by wearing their red WEA shirts on Wednesdays, and black on Fridays with the sticker indicating the number of days without a contract. Bumper stickers, yard signs, and additional action steps may follow.
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