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Newton teacher strike offers lessons and a cautionary tale

Striking members of the Newton Teachers Association wave at cars passing Newton Public Schools' administration offices. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Striking members of the Newton Teachers Association wave at cars passing Newton Public Schools' administration offices. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The final few hours inside the negotiating room at Newton Public Schools to reach a deal on a new teacher contract were tense. The teachers’ union and school committee had reached a compromise on most everything except conditions over teacher prep time and the return to work agreement.
“It was tough. It was like at what point do we compromise to get the agreement and on what do we hold firm,” remembers Newton Teachers Association President Mike Zilles. “There’s a lot of tension around those decisions that are being made over a period of three or four hours.”
By Friday evening, when a deal was struck, union members had spent more than two weeks on the picket line and everyone was antsy to get back to class. But even in those late, final hours of negotiations, a large group of striking teachers were singing and chanting outside of district headquarters to express support for the union.

Zilles, who has led the Newton Teachers Association since 2010, said he wasn’t surprised by the high level of attendance at the picket lines every day, despite the fact that teacher strikes are illegal in the state and politically risky.
“It’s a lot more than just energy [of our members], it’s organization,” Zilles said. “And that organization just got stronger and stronger as the negotiations proceeded.”

Though about 98% of the union’s nearly 2,000-member base voted to authorize a strike starting Jan. 19, mobilization to push for things like higher teacher pay and more mental health supports for students actually began much earlier, according to Zilles.
The NTA was bargaining with Newton Public Schools for 10 months leading up to the previous contract’s expiration on Aug. 31, 2023. Even before the start of the the current school year, NTA leadership was urging district leaders to meaningfully negotiate a new contract by holding multiple rallies and encouraging “work to rule,” where teachers only work the hours explicitly stated in their contract.

For Zilles, that momentum and consistent member participation over the course of a 16-month campaign is what helped the union ultimately secure a favorable new contract.

Ratified by NTA members Sunday, it includes a 30% raise in starting salary for teacher aides — from $28,270 to $36,778 — and a district promise to hire at least five more social workers at the elementary schools. The union and the district also agreed to double the number of district-paid parental leave days from 10 days to 20 days and allow total paid parental leave of 60 days, up from 40 days. They also negotiated a 12% increase to annual cost of living adjustments for all educators over the next four years.

Hundreds of educators attended a rally at the Newton Education Center during the second week of the teachers strike.
Meghan Kelly
Hundreds of educators attended a rally at the Newton Education Center during the second week of the teachers strike.

The new terms will cost the Newton Public Schools an additional $53 million compared with the last contract. A return to work agreement, meantime, specifies that no educators will face disciplinary action for the work stoppage.
Members of the Newton School Committee did not respond to requests for comment. But during Friday’s press conference announcing the deal, committee chair Chris Brezski said the contract reflects the district’s values, which includes respect for the city’s public school teachers.
“It reinforces and expands meaningful [mental health] support for our students, meaningfully increases compensation for all of our employees, especially classroom aides,” he said.
Brezski went on to acknowledge that the 11-day work stoppage was hard on the city’s kids and families and that it will take time to heal. The suburban district is among the state’s highest-achieving districts and serves just under 12,000 students across 22 schools.
“For now, we will take a breath and then begin the work ensuring this never happens again,” he said.
State-level union leaders and school committee watch groups say they’re not anticipating any contract fights that might lead to strikes in other districts in the near future. But Max Page, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the statewide organization that supports local unions like the Newton Teachers Association, says he does expect student mental health support to be increasingly prioritized in future contract negotiations elsewhere, much like it factored in Newton.

The district’s new contract pledges an increase in number of social workers, counselors and school psychologists at the middle school level starting in the 2025-26 school year plus a commitment for future recommendations in this regard.
“This [student] mental health crisis — which began well before the pandemic — has only gotten worse since the pandemic,” Page said. “So [working it into a labor contract] is a very key way to address it.
Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said incorporating those demands as well as other issues like increased pay and parental leave are not easy for city leaders to negotiate politically as there are a lot of municipal departments vying for budget increases every year.
“The school department is just part of what goes on in the municipality,” he said.

A sign on Linwood Ave. Newton, Mass. supporting striking teachers.
Robin Lubbock
A sign on Linwood Ave. Newton, Mass. supporting striking teachers.

Koocher said he was surprised by how long it took Newton to settle their teachers contract. In recent years, teacher strikes have lasted anywhere from a day (Brookline, Malden) to five days (Woburn). Koocher nonetheless singled out the level of communication distributed daily by Newton school officials during this fraught period, including nightly email updates from the mayor about the progress of strikes.

“[The school committee] put out a lot of literature,” Koocher said. “It was well-written, objective, conciliatory. I really applaud the mayor.”

But two weeks of no school proved highly disruptive to families — and for some parents, a little too close to the memory of pandemic-era school closures.
“[My child] was a freshman during Covid, and I think for all of the kids there was a bit of PTSD with the suddenness of the end of school and being at home,” said Newton parent Niels Steenstrup. “That is just an extra amount of anxiety and trauma that students today probably don’t need.”
Steenstrup’s child, a senior in high school, is worried about how they’ll make up learning time to prepare for AP exams, a national exam that takes place in May which allows high schoolers to qualify for college credit.
“They won’t have had as long to prepare for those, so for college-bound students that’s an issue,” Steenstrup said, adding that even extracurricular activities like rehearsals for an upcoming school play had to be postponed due to the strike, which cancelled after school activities in addition to regular classes. The school committee recently decided to cut into February vacation week to make up some of those 11 missed days.
Newton resident Paul Thayer recalled that the longer the strike went on, the more divisive the issues became for residents.

“You could feel [the tension] in the conversations,” said Thayer, a professor at Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education and spouse of a Newton educator. He added that by the second week of the teacher strike, there were multiple parent groups forming to speak out against the work stoppage, with some even organizing press conferences.
Thayer said he’s doing his best to maintain good relationships with his neighbors, so he doesn’t actively begin conversations about the strike right now. But he hopes that eventually, more people will begin to find some middle ground.
“To really move on, I think people are going to need to talk about the different points of view and that they may all be legitimate,” he said. “Everyone really does have the kids’ best interest at heart.”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
Copyright 2024 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

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