The Wellesley Educators Association and the Wellesley School Committee, after ten months of back-and-forth negotiations over contract sticking points, have learned that the Department of Labor Relations (DLR) has determined that the two parties have reached an impasse. After initially denying a request for mediation in January, the state will now appoint a mediator to step in. The expected first move of the mediator will be to get the two sides to agree to a meeting date. Once that’s decided, it will be back to the bargaining table for both parties and a plus-one (the mediator) to discuss the long-stalled contract negotiations.
Although the mediator will retain ultimate control over scheduling meetings, an issue that has come up between the two parties during the month of February, that’s about as far-reaching as that entity’s powers go. But there will still be plenty of boxes that need checking. Most importantly, once the process is concluded, the mediator will file a confidential report (meaning neither you nor Swellesley will be able to access it) with the DLR Director. Although the file will be sealed from the public, it’s likely that the report will contain an overview of what is already a matter of public record—the unresolved issues that landed the two parties in mediation.
It is possible that the report to the DLR Director will conclude that the two sides have come to an agreement, or are close to getting there. If that’s the case, hooray! Let’s bring this thing across the finish line ASAP.
It’s also possible that the report will lead the Director to conclude that the impasse continues to exist and additional mediation is unlikely to resolve the matter. If that happens, the next phase is fact-finding. The fact finder has the authority to mediate the dispute, and reports on whether a work stoppage has occurred or is imminent. Fact-finding isn’t free, and costs are typically divided between the parties. At this point in the story, we’re getting ahead of ourselves, so we’ll stop for now with the what-ifs. Except for one more.
The what-if wild card is a WEA strike, a move educators have repeatedly said they don’t want to make. Wild cards being what they are, however, it’s impossible to say what might happen. During an after-school WEA rally outside Town Hall on Wednesday, March 1, WEA speakers and over 100 demonstrators sounded as strident and determined as ever, placing the responsibility for settling the contract dispute squarely at the feet of the School Committee.
WEA members came to the rally dressed in their signature red. They jangled cow bells, banged on drums, and raised their voices in solidarity. They chanted and let up cheers when passing cars beeped encouragement. Many educators were there with their own kids, modeling what behavior in the workplace-conflict trenches looks like.
WEA representative Brian Reddy led the line-up of about six speakers, energizing the crowd with a call to action, “We didn’t create this tension. We didn’t create these conditions. and unfortunately the School Committee and central office management have shown us that public actions like this are the only thing that the will respond to…We’re here to show our solidarity in order to help the School Committee and central management understand the power that we have, and that we want this contract figured our immediately.”
Rally attendee and Wellesley High School parent Lucienne said, “It sounds to me as if they have a lot of points that need to be discussed, and they’re reasonable points. I really believe in a fair wage. I really believe that they should be given just cause and they should be given adequate time to prepare in elementary schools.”
The sticking points between the two sides continue to be about exactly those issues, part of the WEA “Fair Five.” Compensation and the way in which elementary school specialists work seem to be the particular pain points.
The School Committee in an email to families called the total compensation package they’re offering “the most generous in recent memory,” to which the WEA simply scoffs. At issue is how Unit C employees—teaching assistants, paraprofessionals, and nursing paraprofessionals—are paid. This group is paid on an hourly basis and members are eligible to receive Town benefits. Most positions are scheduled to work between 6.2 and 6.5 hours per day over 182 work days, with one paid holiday per year. The salary for a teaching assistant or a paraprofessional is generally in the mid-$20k range. According to the MIT Living Wage calculations, a living wage in Massachusetts for one adult, after taxes, is $44,405.
WEA representatives disparaged budget items from administrators’ salaries to teacher development programs that can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and, according to some educators, offer dubious results. During his time at the mic, Reddy called on the School Committee to “do what’s right. Even if that means going to the town together, unified, to access adequate funding.”
The School Committee says the budget doesn’t support such a demand, which would likely require an override to achieve.
A Committee non-negotiable is the issue of how Elementary Specialists work. The WEA wants all specialist teachers at the elementary level (art, music, library, physical education) to be guaranteed a 1.0 full-time position at each elementary school. Currently, many specialists teach at more than one school.
The School Committee says a single teacher for each discipline at each elementary school is a flat-out no because there are usually not enough students to support a 1.0 full-time equivalent specialist teacher for each discipline at each location.
Throughout contract negotiations, the School Committee has been generally quiet, citing a policy of not commenting on ongoing dialogue. But it was a WEA social media post that accused the Committee of bargaining in bad faith that finally pushed them over the edge. In an email to WPS families, the Committee said about an attempt for the sides to schedule important February meetings, “…we offered full-day session dates both before and after the February break. The union bargaining team raised no objections to this approach and began exploring different dates with us in the room. We were quite surprised and disappointed by social media posts made on Thursday by the WEA leadership that accused the School Committee of proposing full-day sessions as a means to keep its silent bargaining representatives out of the bargaining process. We have no concerns about these representatives being present. This public mischaracterization of the School Committee’s interest is certainly not in the spirit of good faith bargaining.”
And that’s how a school system goes from ten months of contract negotiations to an initial request for mediation (denied by the state) to a subsequent request for mediation (approved by the state) to a mediator having to take on the responsibility to schedule a meeting.
What have they agreed on?
Here’s a School Committee-generated document on what the two sides have managed to agree on
More information about the “Fair Five” from the Wellesley Educators Association
James Roberti says
I wholeheartedly believe in mediation. A neutral can help both sides reach consensus. Take the politics out of it and sit down with a mediator and hammer out a deal. Remember a good outcome is when both sides think they lost. As an attorney – post pandemic- I can tell you the courts are hearing 2020 cases next year. I have settled 5 cases with the help of a mediator that would still be hanging around. Good luck to all.
Jim Roberti, Esquire