Tensions permeate contract negotiations

February 17, 2022

After months of contract negotiations, the Brookline Educators Union (BEU) and the Brookline School Committee (BSC) have still not reached an agreement. The convoluted negotiating process has taken a toll on the entire Brookline community.

For the past two years, the BEU and the BSC have been negotiating a new contract. The old contract was introduced in 2015 and expired in 2019. Current negotiations involve some members of the BSC and the negotiations team of the BEU meeting over Zoom.

Members of both the BEU and BSC said negotiations can be exhausting, especially during stressful pandemic times. BSC chair Suzanne Federspiel said she is hoping this contract will be agreed upon soon.

“Just to put it in perspective: We have had three successful memorandum of agreements (formal commitments to collaboration) in the last two years around working conditions in the pandemic, and they were a lot of work. So we’re a little tired on both sides, going back and forth and back and forth,” Federspiel said.

Teachers have expressed how difficult it is to work without a contract and began a work-to-rule action in December to bring attention to their struggles. Under work-to-rule, teachers only work during school hours.

Pierce School English teacher Marlene Goncalves said teachers are not happy with the BSC’s proposals, which she said would not have teachers’ pay increase at the same rate as inflation.

“It’s frustrating and feels like we’re not valued. Having your pay cut when you’re doing more and more each day is demoralizing and unfair,” Goncalves said.

It is likely the BEU and BSC will soon go into mediation to finally settle the current contract. Mediation involves a neutral third party, a state representative from the Department of Labor Relations, making the ultimate decisions about what the contract will include.

The BEU has been reluctant to enter mediation because, according to BEU president Jessica Wender-Shubow, it is more favorable towards the desires of the BSC.

“It’s like bringing a lawyer in to reduce questions of values to numbers,” Wender-Shubow said.

BSC member Mariah Nobrega said in a Dec. 15 Facebook post that by deciding against mediation and participating in work-to-rule, the BEU could jeopardize students’ mental health and academic performance.

“By (1) rejecting mediation, (2) choosing work-to-rule and (3) pressuring the community to pressure us to reject mediation, the union is really hurting students—both through reduced interactions and through statements, all of which can provoke stress and anxiety,” Nobrega said.

Wender-Shubow said contract negotiations take time and rushing into mediation eliminates the possibility of compromise. She said the state representative takes over and the BEU and BSC would no longer directly communicate.

Despite the differing opinions on mediation, it seems unlikely that the two sides will reach an agreement without the intervention of a third party. Neither side appears willing to budge from their current positions.

What are the BSC and BEU negotiating?

The BEU and BSC share an overarching goal: to reach agreement on a new contract. But in complicated and long negotiations meetings, this goal can seem far away. The BEU and the BSC want the contract to look different and it is their job to work together to create a compromise.

The BEU outlined its most recent proposals on its website on Jan. 10. Primarily, the union is looking for a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) to make sure teachers are being paid enough to keep up with inflation.

BEU members are seeking a 3 percent increase in salary per year that would be enacted retroactively for the past three years. This would mean a total 9 percent salary increase from the previous contract to the new one.

In response to the BEU’s requests, Nobrega posted on Facebook on Dec. 15 explaining why the School Committee could not accept all of the BEU’s demands. She said if the BSC were to agree to a 9 percent increase over three years, Brookline would have to cover the costs by cutting between 25 and 30 teachers.

“It would mean larger class sizes, reduced program offerings, or both,” Nobrega said.

Earlier, in a negotiations meeting on Oct. 27, the BSC proposed a financial package that included a 6 percent cost-of-living increase over three years (2 percent per year) and a 10 percent increase to longevity pay (lump-sum payments for teachers who have been in the district for more than 10 years and increases as they stay).
“Brookline teacher salaries are already the highest among our suburban peer districts; this offer would solidify the District’s advantage in recruitment and retention,” the Negotiations Subcommittee said in a statement on Oct. 28. This proposal also included language about forming a new committee to speed up future negotiations.

This graph shows the distribution of the town’s teacher salaries at each school. This data does not include administrators, paraprofessionals, guidance counselors, specialists or other staff members. (GRAPHIC BY NATE PARRY LUFF)

The Sagamore has compiled salary data from PSB contracts as well as contracts from several nearby districts. You can view these full contracts and highlighted salary data here.

To see how the BSC has broken down the education budget for the Fiscal Year 2023, view this budget summary.

Heath School science teacher and BEU vice president Robert Miller said the BEU is unwilling to settle on the 6 percent retroactive raise, partially because it now comes packaged with a mandatory increase of 30 minutes to the time elementary school teachers spend in the building daily.

“Why would this, after the most difficult years of anybody’s career, be the moment to make the day longer and not pay us more?” Miller said.

BEU members’ frustrations with having worked without a contract for so long have been demonstrated through various protests, including the recent work-to-rule action. English teacher Nicholas Rothstein said the goal of work-to-rule was to draw attention to how much work teachers do outside of school hours.

“In terms of hours where you’re not going to be in school, I think that those hours need to be paid for, but they probably also need to be understood, or at least we need to talk about what to expect during that time,” Rothstein said.

Wender-Shubow said going into work-to-rule was not an easy decision for the BEU to make.

“It’s terribly painful, work-to-rule. Unions only do it because no one can give them a better alternative,” Wender-Shubow said.

In addition to raises, the BEU is asking for daily prep time for every teacher.

In the aforementioned December Facebook post, Nobrega said the BSC is restricted by the town budget allocated to schools and cannot feasibly meet all of the BEU’s requests within these limitations.

“If the School Committee had additional funds to deploy, certainly we could consider these. However, the School Committee has neither (1) the funds in hand to accede to the BEU demands, nor (2) a strong case to make for an override to pay for this, given the 15 percent drop in enrollment since Fall 2019,” Nobrega said.

Wender-Shubow said the BSC is not doing enough to push for the money to meet the BEU’s demands. She believes an override–when the town’s voters are asked to increase their property taxes– may be feasible if presented to the public in the right way.

“I was told there’s no appetite in this town for an override. And I said, ‘What are you doing to make people hungry?’” Wender-Shubow said.

In a September 2021 memo, the BEU outlined a commitment to maintaining a diverse workforce through a proposal that would “grant BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) educators Professional Teacher States (PTS) as early as allowed by law.”

PTS provides job security by ensuring a teacher will not be fired without cause. PTS generally can be obtained after three years of teaching, with approval of the superintendent.

In the December Facebook post, Nobrega addressed this proposal and said it did not belong in a contract because the superintendent already holds this power.

“Beyond that, the original language the union suggested for this in the contract was not allowable by law. To be clear, it is illegal for the district to grant privilege to any class of people based on the color of their skin,” Nobrega said.

Wender-Shubow said the BEU intended to focus on diversity and equality by highlighting a commitment to these principles in the contract, but she wished they had worded those initial proposals better.

“We haven’t said this very well. I always think we can do better. What I wish we had said more clearly and more consistently is that unions have not always been on the right side of racial justice,” Wender-Shubow said.

The most recent BEU proposals now ask for language in the contract that “expresses a tangible and measurable commitment to recruit and retain staff of color.”

According to Federspiel, when negotiating, each side should understand the unique lens through which they are viewing the process.

“Sometimes there’ll be different interests, of course. Teachers might have slightly different interests than students, students might have slightly different interests than their families, families might have slightly different interests than School Committee. We all have a different lens,” Federspiel said. “But what would make it easier? People coming in on both sides with a willingness to listen and then speak. Not speak and then listen.”

Federspiel said the BSC hired an attorney years ago to help negotiate with the BEU. This attorney attends the regular negotiations meetings to represent the side of the BSC.

“She has settled many contracts. She helped us with the [memorandums of agreement], she helped with the 2016 contract. I think she spoke to them longer than that. She has been doing it for many years. She’s done it with other [previous] union leaders,” Federspiel said.

Miller said members of the BEU do most of the talking at negotiations meetings.

“(The BSC) basically doesn’t talk other than their attorney. When we’ve asked them to talk, frequently they’ll decline and the attorney will say, ‘I’m speaking for them,’” Miller said.

Federspiel said the negotiations process can be cumbersome, but the BSC’s principal objective remains reaching a contract.

“We are committed to each other, we are committed to the teachers and the system and the families and the students. So we will get through this. We will get to a place where everybody agrees that this is what the contract should look like,” Federspiel said. “So we will do that. It’s not fun, but it’s part of the process. You come out on the other side stronger.”

The BEU proposed establishing a Joint Labor-Management Committee, which would analyze contract negotiations and the work of teachers in order to make recommendations about how the bargaining process should be conducted.

Wender-Shubow said stress and the pandemic mean teachers have less energy to communicate effectively with the BSC and the community. She said parents are disconnected from what goes on inside schools and don’t fully understand what teachers go through.

“I don’t think that parents have any idea what goes on hour by hour in our buildings,” Wender-Shubow said.

Both the BEU and the BSC feel that their images are sometimes misrepresented in the Brookline community. Often-tense conversations between teachers, parents and BSC members take place on the Brookline Public Schools Facebook discussion group. Wender-Shubow said she has been targeted by users on Facebook.

“I cannot believe how crazy social media is. The problem is we get trolled on social media,” Wender-Shubow said.

Federspiel said the BSC’s side of the story is not always easily accessible to the public.

“What the School Committee sees as disagreement, educators may see as disrespect. We regret this perception and wish to change it,” the BSC said in a Dec. 17 statement.

What happens next?

With uncertainty about what the next steps will look like, it remains clear that the BSC and BEU have come to view each other in very different lights.

The BEU’s focus is to protect the voice of teachers and, according to Wender-Shubow, the BSC intentionally tries to obstruct that.

“It’s about control. It’s about power. I think it’s quite literal. It’s about management control. They want to be able to say no, whenever they want to say no,” Wender-Shubow said.

Federspiel said the BSC hopes for a contract that benefits everyone in Brookline, taking into account the perspectives of teachers, students and families.

“We’re working hard to get to a win-win, and we’ll get there,” Federspiel said. “I’m hoping that it doesn’t impact student learning too much. Because, really, that’s what we’re about.”

Federspiel said the BSC wants to reach an agreement that acknowledges and validates teachers’ opinions.

“I really do support them. I’m really grateful for the work they’re doing,” Federspiel said. “I think our teachers are great teachers. The nice thing is they’re open to helping us make changes, and we need to.”

The Sagamore did not get a response to questions for comment from Superindendent Linus Guillory, BSC Member Valerie Frias, BSC Member David Pearlman, Julia Speyer and Kenny Kozol.

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  • K

    KathleenMay 17, 2022 at 9:28 am

    Although I am reading this in May, I am very impressed by this writing. Thank you for informing readers on these complicated issues, providing direct quotes from participants on both sides, and for the balanced coverage. Well done!

  • S

    StevenMar 1, 2022 at 4:18 pm

    This is fantastic coverage – really nuanced and balanced work on complicated issues. Thank you.