Contract struggles stem from ongoing centralization issues

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GRAPHIC BY YIMING FU

Over the course of the contract negotiations, many teachers have felt that the nuances of their jobs are going largely ignored and unaccounted for.

As of April 10, Brookline Public School teachers have worked 135 school days without a contract with the School Committee. The COVID-19 global pandemic and school closure led to a temporary contract, but the two parties have yet to agree on anything permanent. The contract negotiations, which began in December, have not led to alignment on salary and working conditions for educators for the upcoming school years.

The negotiations have stalled recently because of tensions over giving teachers the time and autonomy to make certain decisions as the nature of their job has shifted over the past couple of years. The autonomy debate seems to many to follow a trend of increased standardization in the name of equity, which has left teachers feeling alienated and frustrated with the lack of flexibility given to them. However, the union and school committee reached a temporary agreement that reflects a shift away from the school committee’s rigidity and allows for more flexibility for educators on the job.

Given the School Committee’s pushback, many feel like the central administration is not listening to teachers and what they need.

“I have no doubt that the central administration cares about students and wants to do the right thing. But what has happened the past few years is that the central administration has become very top-down. Instituting new bureaucratic systems that don’t seem to work well and ends up causing frustration and confusion,” a teacher at the high school, who wished to remain anonymous, said. “The feeling that has resulted from that is that there isn’t a lot of listening to teachers on the ground. I have as a teacher have felt demoralized and not respected for my expertise.”
Negotiations continued as schools closed, and the BEU and School Committee reached a one-year agreement that would retroactively give the Unit A and Unit B positions a 1.5 percent raise from September 1, 2019. Negotiations are “paused during the shutdown but remain active” as agreements around next year’s finances and working conditions still have yet to be reached. Questions surrounding teacher autonomy and scheduling still remain very unanswered.

In 2019, the three different bargaining groups first entered negotiations. The three different groups are Unit A (teachers, counselors, all the people you see in school on a daily basis), Unit B (curriculum coordinators and program coordinators), and paraprofessionals. Negotiations were delayed because the Brookline Educators Union (BEU) insisted on being able to have silent representatives in the negotiating room. Silent reps are people who can sit in the room after listening to the negotiations, and can discuss with caucuses their thoughts.

According to Guidance Counselor and Negotiation Committee Chair Eric Schiff, this was resolved over the summer with a decision coming down from the Department of Labor, stating that the School Committee had to let the silent reps sit in for negotiations. The first actual negotiation session was held in December 2019. In the meantime, the paraprofessional bargaining group was able to get a one-year contract that gave them a $1.25 an hour wage increase – about 5 percent.

One big issue that is a focus of negotiations is the salary of the teachers and administrators. The School Board had budgeted for a 2 percent raise to the teachers’ and administrators’ salaries. However, according to Schiff, when the BEU was presented with the salary deal during the negotiation process, this raise was not included by the School Committee.

“Even though they budgeted money for teachers and administrators in a budget that was approved by town meeting over summer, we asked for that money as part of the money only deal for all three units, they said they didn’t have it for A and B. They didn’t say why,” Schiff said.

According to Guidance Counselor and Guidance Union Department Representative Clifton Jones, this reflected larger problems of the struggle to align with the School Committee on needs of faculty and staff.

“ feels like more of the same. We’re negotiating for things that feel very basic, and especially this year, stuff that we felt we already had in place,” Jones said. “ budgeted the money but it still feels like we have to fight them to get the money. Feels a little strange that that’s the point where we are.”

The contract negotiations are much bigger than just the money, and most of the negotiations center around working conditions especially around teacher autonomy and time in the day for teachers and staff to do work.

A teacher’s job is much more than just teaching during class periods. It includes prep for classes, collaborating with other teachers, and attending parent, staff, IEP, and student meetings. The BEU wants the contract to account for changing requirements in time and energy for these parts of the job.

“There are way more kids who require IEP or 504, so the nature of the job . The time that I used to have to get this stuff done no longer exists,” Schiff said. “A lot of the proposals revolve around teachers having a certain amount of time in the day. We want to take classes away and give more time to get this additional work done.”

According to President of the BEU Jessica Wender-Shubow, allowing more time for teachers to collaborate allows for more autonomy and trust in the educators in the school. This aspect of their proposal is incorporated to give more academic freedom to Brookline’s students and staff to best meet their needs.

“Our proposals make time for teachers to come to a common ground on what students need. We defend academic freedom for students and educators alike as that vision. Clearly colleagues work together to make the system work in a coherent way,” Wender-Shubow said. “We have a sense that if you really give more respect to the expert teaching ability of your teaching staff, you will see plenty of shared values being implemented, and content too.”

Many in the union feel as though the negotiations have been emblematic of increasing standardization, centralization and top-down control in Brookline education. According to Wender-Shubow, this top-down control relates to questions about equity. She said she thinks Town Hall’s desire to limit achievement gaps and racial inequality in the Brookline school system has led to an increase in standardized curriculum in testing, Advanced Placement (AP) classes and especially in elementary school learning. However, Wender-Shubow said she would rather see this goal reached through more teacher agency.

“A lot of the justification that Brookline schools have for current policy is driven by a stated commitment to racial equity. That has resulted in an impulse to standardization or to try and measure performance according to a white supremacist model which is driven primarily by ‘metrics,’” Wender-Shubow said. “A deeper commitment to racial justice honors our students of color’s life experience, ethnic studies and African american history for all students.”

According to a Brookline High School teacher who wished to remain anonymous, the central administration has the correct motives but is taking the wrong approach by not allowing for teachers to foster crucial relationships with students and instead making them focus on test scores.

“If we limit the resources and focus on it means we’re only making it harder for teachers to build the kind of relationships that really matter and take a lot of time to support students who have not gotten an education historically. When we are so overburdened with administration tasks and more initiatives, then it is hard to take the time and energy and build those relationships” the teacher said.

This trend towards standardization and top-down directives have impacted a lot of how Brookline students learn and operate.

“It is thanks to the students and teachers that it’s not worse. it is from the resistance of students and teachers to create amazing kinds of learning experiences together in spite of the push from above. So in the contract we have protections for what Brookline has always done best, which is to really prize creativity and diversity and its deepest sense,” Wender-Shubow said.

As with many things, the contract negotiations have been affected greatly by the disruption caused by COVID-19. In the face of school closure, the union and the School Committee reached a temporary contract that will keep teachers working as the district and schools nationwide implement remote learning.

According to Schiff, the temporary contract was tedious in dealing with the central office and School Committee, but that negotiations were generally positive and many were content that the decisions reached.

“That took a while, but it got done. And I think people were happy with what came out of it. It was an agreement on what gets done, what teaching looks like, how long roughly you spend on it, we suspended evaluations which is big. And to recognize that it’s a crazy time and teachers may or may not have crazy lives going on behind the scenes,” Schiff said.

The Memorandum of Agreement outlined the work expected of teachers and staff in all three bargaining groups. In addition to expectations of communication with students and providing assignments, it lays out a 20-hour work week and includes other provisions to acknowledge the strains remote learning places on school employees.

A Brookline High School teacher felt as this had been a change of pace from the tone that the central administration had generally put out regarding standardization.

“For all of my concerns about the centralization and standardization focus the central administration has exhibited in the past few years, I have actually felt really supported and I’ve felt that there’s been a real unified message from all of the leadership in Brookline” the teacher said.

The temporary contract that has been put into place has led to an increasing amount of flexibility as the entire district works to navigate the unprecedented situation. The work that has been done to keep students learning has been productive and thoughtful, according to a teacher.

“This is not school as usual – we’re building the plane while flying it. There needs to be a lot of flexibility,” the teacher said.

According to Wender-Shubow, the Memorandum of Agreement reflects values that the union has long championed in relation to teacher autonomy and respect.

“In this emergency, we continue, as a union, to remember that our value system is to teach the whole child and to do it in a way that is modeled by treating the educators as part of an ethical learning community,” Wender-Shubow said. “That we would treat educators as worthy of dignity and respect because that would produce the sort of schools that are good for kids.”