By James Vaznis
The Boston Teachers Union and the School Department reached a tentative deal early Thursday morning on a new contract, which eases the process of hiring teachers and extends parental leave to more teachers but leaves some major issues unresolved.
The two-year contract deal, which would replace an agreement that expired last August, calls for giving the 6,500 members a 2 percent retroactive pay increase for the past school year and a 3 percent raise for the upcoming year.
The contract’s brief span — the previous agreement was for six years — comes as Mayor Martin J. Walsh is heading into his final months of running for reelection, providing him an opportunity to tout a win after suffering an embarrassing setback earlier this year.
Talks have been underway for 18 months. In May, the talks reached an impasse, prompting the teachers union to seek intervention from a state mediator. The union had been chastising Walsh for quickly reaching contract deals with the male-dominated unions like the police, while talks with the overwhelmingly female teachers union dragged on.
One of the biggest unresolved issues is the fate of dozens of teachers each year who do not secure classroom assignments. The school system has been pushing to change contract language so they can be terminated, while the union has been pushing to protect their jobs and provide them with more opportunities to retrain.
Walsh addressed the unfinished business head on when he unveiled the deal Thursday afternoon, characterizing it as if it was an interim agreement, noting the two sides would resume negotiations relatively soon for a successor contract.
“It’s important for people to understand there are a lot of issues over the last year and a half [that] we have been negotiating,” said Walsh, flanked by union and school officials. “What we did with this contract was to come to agreement so we could move forward and then start the clock over again.”
The contract needs to be approved by the School Committee and ratified by the union, which also represents guidance counselors, teacher aids, and other rank-and-file educators. City and school officials are aiming to schedule those votes in mid-September.
Other provisions in the new deal call for increasing the number of nurses in schools and extending access to the parental leave policy to second- and third-year teachers and paraprofessionals.
The agreement eases the hiring process by eliminating contract language that allowed the school system to bypass veteran teachers for outside candidates only if the position required a special skill, which also came with a $1,250 stipend. The change saves about $500,000.
The announcement of the deal, which was made at Boston University, elicited rousing cheers from dozens of teachers who had turned out for the event. The teachers were at BU attending a training seminar.
“It’s nice to feel validated as important members of the community,” said Elizabeth Centeio, a first-grade teacher, after the press conference ended. “We put in a lot of hours. Our jobs don’t end when we leave schools. We work into the evenings and over the weekends.”
The raises are coming just in time, she said, as she has been maxing out her credit cards stocking her classroom with supplies.
In many ways, the deal represents a victory for Jessica Tang, who took over as president of the teachers union less than two months ago. She pushed the idea with Walsh of putting together a contract based on the areas they had already agreed on.
Tang said she was thrilled to reach the agreement and thanked her predecessor, Richard Stutman, who retired in June, for leading the efforts that secured many of the new provisions.
“What’s significant about this short-term contract is that the features of this contract can be implemented immediately for this school year,” Tang said. “Our first priority is our students and their families, and we will continue to work with our city partners to focus on ensuring a great and smooth start to the new school year.”
Superintendent Tommy Chang also said he was pleased the talks concluded before the start of school. “This is a contract that is fair to teachers and good for kids,” he said.
Not everyone cheered the agreement.
“This contract is disappointing,” said Samuel Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a government watchdog funded by businesses and nonprofits. “It doesn’t address meaningful education reform that is necessary to improve student achievement.”
Specifically, Tyler wants the school system to gain the power to fire unassigned teachers.
City Councilor Tito Jackson, who is running against Walsh, said he didn’t think the contract was good enough for teachers.
“Teachers are some of our most important professionals, and they ought to be supported and well compensated because they help our children blossom,” Jackson said in a statement. “While I am glad the majority-female composed Boston Teachers Union finally brought Mayor Walsh to an agreement, I am disappointed the mayor was not able commit to a longer contract.”
The average teacher pay in Boston last year was $90,467, according to the School Department, which means the average pay raise would be about $1,800 under the first year of the contract and about $2,760 under the second year.
Many union members also earn additional raises as they advance through a pay scale based on years of experience and level of education.
While the two sides had many points of agreement, both worked furiously to get a deal in place before the beginning of the school year. They met seven times with the state mediator, including a session that began Wednesday at the state labor relations department and extended well into the early morning hours.
At one point — around 10:30 p.m. — the lights, set on a timer, flickered in the state office and then went out, prompting state employees to scurry around for plug-in lights.
Around 3 a.m., Walsh’s cellphone lighted up. Chang sent a text informing the mayor they got the deal done.
James Vaznis can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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