On Thursday, Feb. 4, Brookline school faculty and residents were given the opportunity during a public comment segment at the School Committee’s meeting at Town Hall to express their views around contract negotiations between the School Committee and the Brookline Educators Union (BEU).
Before Public Comment (5:30 p.m.):
The public comment portion of the meeting was set to begin at 6:00 p.m., but by 5:30 p.m., teachers donning blue stickers and Brookline residents wearing yellow ones congregated outside Town Hall. Below are some initial reactions of those waiting outside for the meeting to begin:
“If the School Committee is entering or opening the negotiations and their minds aren’t open and they don’t respect the people that are showing up, then it’s not fair. A negotiation is all about coming to the table and gathering about an agreement, not coming to a standstill.” -Ron Vish, parent
“I can tell you from a negotiator’s standpoint I don’t think that they respect teachers, so if they hear that parents are unhappy then there is a better chance of having some sort of change. It’s really inconceivable that after an override they wouldn’t be able to offer us really anything that we were asking for, even the non-monetary things that we asked for that would benefit students and teachers. I think that what they value really shows in what they used part of the money for, which is to give more money to central administration positions. That’s not going to improve teaching and learning.” -Jane Leo, first grade teacher at Heath School and member of the negotiation team.
“I think if our union shows up as it is tonight and the parents show up to support us, the School Committee, as elected officials that represent those parents, would have to respond. We typically negotiate contracts every three years and we had a contract and then the contract ended.We continue to work under no stipulation of previous contracts.” -Mark Wheeler, high school social studies teacher
“I have not talked to one parent or resident who thinks that it is a good idea to stall on their contracts. We should be a leader in education and the first step is to treat our teachers well.” -Laura Gabel-Hartman, parent
“If it takes a crowd like this of concerned and irate people to get that across, then that’s what we have to do. It seems like they (the School Committee) are unmovable. And it is more than just the money. It is about working conditions and learning conditions. People leave Boston to get their kids in Brookline, with exorbitant real estate prices, to have their kids go to school here, and these guys are in the process of running it into the ground. Why bother coming here if they’re just going to increase class size and make things untenable for the quality of learning?” -Glen Gurner, high school engineering teacher
“Teachers are stretched thin. We have a million initiatives coming at us from a every direction, and we can’t keep up. We have endless meetings, we have endless mandatory training and it seems like Town Hall is out of touch. They don’t recognize how hard we’re really working and how much time we’re being pulled out of our classrooms. We’ve been asking for a reasonable living wage increase, and they haven’t come back and offered a reasonable response to that proposal. We’ve been asking for limits on the number of students in classrooms to make classrooms safe. We’ve been asking for recognition for all the work that we’ve been doing that makes our district special, and it’s been very frustrating that the negotiations subcommittee from the school committee has not met our proposals with reasonable counter proposals.” -Jesse Kirdahy, 5th grade teacher at Driscoll
Public Comment (6:00 p.m.):
At the time of the School Committee meeting, the crowd made their way to a small conference room. Members of the school committee sat at the front of the room while those in support of the BEU crowded into the cramped space; many could not fit in the room and instead opted to stay in the hallways. Chants of “What do we want? A fair contract! When do we want it? Now!” and “Still teaching! No contract!” reverberated through the room.
When the public comment session began, many people approached the podium set up on the left side of the room and made their comments, energized by constant applause from the crowd. Below are quotes from these public comments:
President of the Brookline Educators Union Jessica Wender-Shubow
“Brookline educators go above and beyond every day. We actually asked educators to tally what they were doing after the end of their work day, and hundreds of them did it. We looked at the work they were doing for their students and we won’t burden you with all the breakdown, though we have it, and they know what it is. I’ll say that the average is 475 hours per member over the course of the school year, and we added that up. We saw that once our teachers leave school, that together as a body represented by the Union, that they have put in, on average, 437,000 extra hours after working all day in the buildings. We also asked our teachers to look at what they were taking out of pocket to help enhance and enrich the teaching that they do, and they added some of that, and we crunched those numbers, and we were able to find $428,720 over the course of a given school year. And they are hear to tell you why we are so deeply concerned that the school committee has not honored our input at the bargaining table.”
Lawrence Teacher Jill Demsey
“We are here for your children everyday; often we are there for them before we are there for our own. We don’t just teach the students before us: we nurture them, we counsel them, encourage them, love them and protect them. And as violence silently slips into our community, we too may be the ones who stand between them and the unthinkable. I didn’t train for that. That wasn’t part of my job description. And even though last Wednesday’s events did not turn into what could have been a catastrophic event, the reality is they could have. And even though all was calm in our building, and we carried on, there was fear in our hearts and in the minds of our staff because we, the adults, know the reality. Yet, we carried on protecting your children, our students, and I would act the same way again, and again and again, to ensure the safety of your children. I want you to consider this reality, my reality, their reality.”
Parent Stephen Whalen
“A lot of us made sacrifices to get into the town. The driver was the kids. We have to stop thinking that the school is just a building or is a liability line item. I know it’s sometimes a hard thing to look up from, trying to balance a budget, which is what you guys are trying to do and trying to keep other things going on in the town. And it might be a problem with the stakeholders, such as myself, in the town not giving you enough of a mandate, to say ‘Hey, we have to be competitive with other towns in Massachusetts,’ so we don’t lose our assets, which is our great teachers, our great school system. We need to give you guys the mandate to think strategically on a package that makes teachers want to really want to stay here…Thank you teachers for sticking it out, and I’m hoping that the board will accelerate their talks with you and take what I say.”
Lawrence Math Teacher Charles Deily
“Today, Brookline is no longer as strong a system, and I am no longer as strong a teacher as I was even five years ago. Incremental initiatives have taken away our planning time. Brilliant younger colleagues have moved to other systems with a solid curriculum to build on, not net goals to reach on our own. Years ago, I would be able to pop into a colleague’s room to see how and what they were teaching, approaches that I would then be able to goad upon in my own classroom in subsequent years. If a student was having difficulty, I could talk to their previous years’ teachers to see what they did, what worked and what didn’t, so I could immediately work with their strengths and learning styles. Now, I barely have the time to consult with the teachers, guidance counselors and paraprofessionals on my own immediate team…Don’t just listen sympathetically. Please act to make Brookline teachers able to teach at the top of our game and have Brookline known for education again.”
Paraprofessional Dan Arroyo
“My girlfriend is currently a teacher at Driscoll; she makes about double what I make per hour. We got the same education, we’ve taught for almost the same amount of years, but that’s something that I go home and live with every day. I eat lunch everyday; I work with all these amazing teachers, but they’re on teacher contracts and they get paid to eat, and I don’t. Now trust me, it doesn’t stop me from eating, I understand that. I still have a job to do. But I really think about our vulnerable population. Paraprofessionals help students who have special needs in this town…Right now, I feel like we’re walking around really questioning our morale, how passionate we are about doing our jobs, because we haven’t the funds enough from the people who are supposed to be supporting us. The fact is, we want to have a contract, we want to know what you guys want us to do, right? But, we also want to know that you guys are working with us, not against us. Right now, it feels like it’s us against you, and we don’t want it that way.”
High School Math Teacher Kathy Hitchcock
“I have an MBA from an Ivy League school. I used to work at a Fortune 100 company. I negotiated for close to 20 years multi-million dollar contracts with some of the largest household names in this country. Now this is all a preface to what is happening with our contract, and I have to tell you, that I have never, ever experienced, in over 20 years of negotiating, anything like our current situation. We have not had any sort of counter proposal and my understanding is, because I’m not on the negotiating committee, is that on Feb. 1, we went in for yet another meeting, and all there were were excuses to why you did not want to negotiate with us. I do not understand. So, here I am. I’m emotional about it. I’m upset about it. I’m also looking at it very rationally, saying “What the heck is going on?” because I have never experienced this with multi-million dollar contracts. So, the only thing that I can conclude right now is that you really don’t care about the educators of Brookline. And, personally, I feel very, very disrespected. Do you really, truly care about the teachers and the quality of education for the children of Brookline, because from my perspective and my background, I’m not seeing it.”
Parent Toby Raybould
“First, I wanted to make one quick comment about what you said about the violence about last week. I emailed the School Committee that day to say that never has a contract been more important and now, when the only people protecting my children when I couldn’t get into the school were the teachers. Both of the teachers of my children calmed them down and calmed all of the students in the classroom, some of whom were very upset because they had seen things across the street, so we’re grateful to you…I feel like the kindness of the teachers has been taken advantage of. You asked them to wait while the override went through, and I don’t totally see the connection, but they waited, and then they have been asked to wait more and more, and now it’s a year and a half later. And as a voter, I voted for the override expecting it to do the things that we all want: to improve the school and for the funding to go to the teachers and to improve what they do in the classroom, to improve the facilities, to improve technology, and those things haven’t happened. The teachers can’t do their best work if they don’t have the tools and if their morale is constantly being challenged.”
High School History Teacher Robert Grant
“I’m demoralized. I’m demoralized. I’m going to give my specifics, but it’s true for everybody else. I have 70 juniors this year. How many letters of recommendation is that going to be next year above and beyond a contract I don’t have? I coach the flag football team with Dan. How many hours above and beyond a contract that I don’t have are you expecting from me next year? The trip to Cambodia needs a chaperone. How many hours above and beyond my contract that I don’t have do you expect me to do the fundraising, a lot of which is going to come from people who don’t have a contract. Parent’s night. It goes on and on, the school committee’s blithe presumption upon our good feelings. I still got plenty of good feelings left, but I’m looking at the bottom of the well, and so are a lot of people here, and so are more people who are standing out in the hallway. Let’s have a contract.”
Parent Hagi Bagheri
“I want to say that for all of us, for everybody living, life is valuable. But the most valuable thing in our life as a parent is our kids. So, for me, my daughter, we are here to support the teachers, these excellent teachers, for a fair contract. The teachers have dedicated their valuable lives for our kids.”
Heath Teacher Alex Borns-Weil
“I’m here to tell you that the single most important factor in improving student learning here in Brookline is to make sure teachers have time to collaborate with each other, to plan and reflect on our teaching and student learning, time to collaborate on solving problems and figuring out how to meet student needs. Time and time again, these are the practices that have made a difference in my teaching and in my colleagues’ teaching. And they require time. Teaching is complex. Without time to reflect and collaborate, we all stop growing. We stagnate. Is that what you want for Brookline students? Believe me, we are not here today for selfish reasons. We’re not here to try to get something out of you. We’re here to tell you what we need in order to do our jobs as best as we can.”
Parent Ted Lewis
“The reason I live in Brookline, I expect that this is a community where their (school faculty) voices are respected, where they are treated as partners, where their expertise and their professionalism is respected. And if you as a School Committee, if you have differences with those voices, then I expect that you will engage with them and treat them as the partners and engage in a process where there is give and take. From what I am understanding, that is not happening at this moment. And a big concern of mine is that those educators who have a choice of where they want to work, talented educators want to be in a community where they’re treated as partners, where their voices really are heard, and if there is a top down process, they’re going to be alienated, and they are going to say “You know, I want to work in a community where my voice is respected and heard,” rather than staying here in Brookline, where I want them to stay. I want my kids to benefit from the devoted, talented educators that you see here.”
Parent Keith Duclos
“This is from (A Facebook post on) January 27th: ‘I imagine that we are all breathing a little easier now that our children are home following the neighborhood violence and the school lockdown. After hearing about the events this afternoon, I grabbed my super dad cape, also known as my jacket, to swoop in to protect my boys and all the kids at Pierce, and ran out the door. Before I made a fool out of myself, I remembered that we have the most amazing, wonderful and dedicated teachers in the town of Brookline. I paused, I closed my eyes and pictured many of the teachers, and I knew that each one of them were doing their best to keep our children safe. They would put themselves in harm’s way to protect our children. As I took off my cape and returned to my desk, I wondered why we, as Brookline residents, are not doing our best to resolve the contract dispute with the town. We have to protect the teachers, we have to give them a contract so that they can continue to protect our children, and I think it is a shame that we have not done so yet.'”
Chairman for the Special Education Parents Advisory Counsel and Parent Craig Haller
“I want to talk for one minute about the paraprofessionals. The teachers are great, we know that, everyone else is saying it. I also work as an advocate and so I see all the different districts throughout the state, and I see the importance of the paraprofessionals, and it’s so important for them to have a living wage. And just as important and part of that is we need to be competitive with the other towns around us, which we are not when it comes to the paraprofessionals. They work throughout the district and in very different positions. The ones that I’ve interacted most work with our most vulnerable population within special education. And that goes from a one-to-one paraprofessional with my severely disabled daughter, who is the point person for her health, her safety, her education and is there before the teacher is. There are other paraprofessionals that work with the general ed population, that work with some of our autistic students, and they also have different talents that they need, different specialized training, because they work with the spectrum of students. So I think it’s extremely important to keep their contract in mind, to keep them competitive, to keep them trained on everything from dealing with behavior issues, dealing with health and safety issues and dealing with educational issues because they work in the learning center, they work in the library.”
Parent Michael Wolf
“I wanted to echo what the previous speaker said about the real great work of the paraprofessionals. I have cerebral palsy myself, and I remember when I was a kid, all the hours that they put in with me individually, and I’m grateful for that. And thanks to the attention from my teachers and my paraprofessionals, I was able to achieve as much as I have in my own life. Thank you for that. I would also like to mention that there are many other parents and grandparents who support this cause, because they’re watching our kids, so for every person that’s here in this room and out in that hall, there are probably many others who agree and support this cause, and support our teachers. I hope you will give our teachers the respect that they deserve and our community the respect it deserves and negotiate with them to bring them a better contract.”
Driscoll Math Teacher Lisa Soltani
“What makes great schools is great teachers, and since I started working in the Brookline schools three and a half years ago, I’ve come to know many, many teachers in this district. And I know them to be creative, dedicated professionals whose intellectual curiosity, dedication to students and drive to master their craft is second to none…Because of burgeoning enrollment, we middle school teachers are teaching more sections than before, including teaching outside of our content areas. I had to teach health and social studies in the past. And special edcuator caseloads are just terrible. All of us are being expected to do more with less time, and the people who are really impacted by this are our students, and year after year, student experience is being diminished, incrementally diminished maybe, but diminished nonetheless, so let us try to start making it incrementally better, by coming to the table with firm responses to reasonable proposals, like for living wages for paraprofessionals, who make such a huge difference for so little money.”
Parent Barbara Larson
“I have tremendous respect for this school committee but I have much more respect for the teachers who in the last few years have basically saved my son’s life from what it could have been if he hadn’t received some of the services…I was really struck that the first time that I saw my son’s teachers walking with signs outside of our school in the morning because I didn’t think we lived in a place where that would have to happen…What you’re hearing from all of these teachers is really the perspective I think of a lot of us who elected you as well. I feel like we’re being treated with disrespect too because we don’t even know what’s going on, and you’re not telling us through the public process that’s supposed to occur with elected officials.”
Director of DASEP Lauren Bernard
“I’m standing here before you as a town meeting member from precinct eight, as the director of the district’s largest after school program at Devotion School called DAYSEP and as the parent of a first grader. I’m going to try to do the thing of not repeating what everybody else said but I wanted to add about the issue of pay for paras. DAYSEP starts them at a considerable wage higher than what they make from the school district, and we are, so to speak, a rinky dink non-profit. I employ two of them and it is their third job, so that they can make ends meet, and they’re single, they’re not raising a family…I know a lot of you people (School Committee). You are good people. I know a lot of you on a personal basis. I feel it’s a responsibility to change the tenor of that conversation because people feel marginalized on the one hand and because we elected you and you answer to I think not only the people you employ but the people who employed you.”
The School Committee’s Response:
In response to the people who spoke during the public comment session, School Committee member Rebecca Stone said that the negotiations are not open to the public because they are conducted under executive session. Thus, she said that no minutes of School Committee meetings or any information related to these meetings are open to the public.
However, Stone said that the School Committee is not working against the BEU.
“Please understand that everybody on this committee loves our teachers, and we spend most of our time trying to support their work in support of our kids,” Stone said. “There is no disagreement about the seriousness of the issues facing the Brookline schools. There is no disagreement about the seriousness of the issues that have been raised in contract negotiations. The only disagreement is about how best each issue is to be addressed and that is what negotiations are for.”
Stone also said that she hopes that current negotiations will produce an appropriate contract.
“We continue to try to find that necessary middle ground for a just and fair contract and we will continue to do that,” Stone said. “I hope we will have the support of the community to continue those negotiations so that we can reach that goal.”
After the public comment session, the School Committee moved on to the next piece of their agenda, and supporters of the BEU filed out of the meeting room.
Nancy Springer, a teacher at Pierce School, said that she appreciated the support for the school faculty, but also that she was confused about Stone’s comment.
“I look forward to talking to some of the people who are on the negotiating team from the teacher side to find out, ‘Wait a minute, what’s happening here?’” Springer said.
Driscoll teacher Lisa Soltani said that she understands that the School Committee has many things on its agenda, but that the protest was important.
“We are just here to say this (contract) is important too, so make it a priority,” Soltani said. “That was the goal, so hopefully that is what they will do.”
President of the BEU Jessica Wender-Shubow said that the School Committee needs to take more action.
“We would like them to show more leadership in public,” Wender-Shubow said. “We could work as partners. They haven’t stepped forward and shown any interest in partnering with teachers to stop the mandates. They do it behind closed doors. They give lip service to it, but they have never said to the union ‘let’s work together to fight this.’”
Runkle School teacher Laura Vish said that she was excited by the support the school faculty received and hopes that it will influence the School Committee.
“I think the parent support and the teacher support was incredible, and the energy from tonight will just continue,” Vish said. “I think the School Committee should really listen to the message they were given tonight.”