The Breeze

Somerset Teachers React to Working a Year Without a Contract

Colby Yokell, Co-Editor

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After working almost an entire school year without a contract, Somerset teachers have taken a stand to support each other in this time of uncertainty.

The previous contract for teachers in the Somerset Teachers’ Association (STA) expired on August 31, 2017. However, Christine Sheehan, the STA President, opened the contract in September 2016 and sent a letter to the School Committee notifying them of this.

The School Committee chose not to sit with the STA until May 2017, a mere three months before the contract expired. Usually, the teachers’ contracts undergo negotiations at least a year before the contract expires.

“I have no excuse for it. I think it’s extremely pathetic,” Victor Machado, one of the members of the K-8 negotiating committee, says. “They’re absolutely right to be upset. I don’t blame them about that piece.”

Scott Botelho, a retired SBRHS teacher, a Somerset resident, and a parent of two students that have gone through the Somerset school system, says that this issue with the contracts is not something new. For example, in 2008, the School Committee did not settle the teachers’ contracts on time.

However, Scott says “it’s hard to believe it’s gone as far as it has.”

Catherine Botelho, a senior at SBRHS and an aspiring teacher, says that “it’s time that we show our teachers how much we appreciate them and how we love them, and not giving them a contract is the opposite of that.”

About three weeks ago, Somerset teachers began wearing buttons in the classroom. These buttons were distributed on May 8. There are three different sayings on the buttons. One says “respect teachers.” Another says “you can’t put students first if you put teachers last.” The last says “no contract = no respect.”

“It has made them more aware that the union is one united front, that we are working collaboratively, that we cannot be split apart,” Sheehan says. “And I think this is the first time in a long time that the School Committee has actually seen the teachers come out to voice their opposition to the working conditions and the raises they’re proposing.”

Besides wearing buttons, the teachers have also picketed at Somerset Middle School and have held signs at town meetings.

However, Machado does not like the actions the teachers have taken because the pins get students involved, and he believes they should remain outside of the conflict. Also, he thinks the message they are spreading with the pins and the signs are an insult.

“For the STA to say the School Committee doesn’t respect the teachers is such a gross lie because it’s not true,” Machado says.

On the other hand, Machado says he is impressed with how professional the teachers are being.

“They could have started working to rule, but they aren’t holding [the contract situation] against the children,” Machado says.

The teachers did not start working to rule because it would have involved following their contract precisely, which would have resulted in teachers not staying before or after school to provide extra help, coming in before or after school so students can make up tests, or even writing letters of recommendation for college-bound students.

“We chose not to do that because we’re here for our students,” Sheehan said. “We want what’s best for our students. We love what we do and we want to do the best job we can.”

Sheehan thinks that the buttons and the picketing have been a good first step in that it has educated the public on what is going on.

However, Machado says that he “commend[s] them for doing what they’re doing, but it’s not helpful. It’s not making me change any of my ideas of what I believe is good for the students.”

Ever since May 2017, the STA and the School Committee have been negotiating the next contract. The two parties met a few times before the summer of 2017, met once during the summer, and had a large gap in negotiations from February to April 2018.

The major issues that the two parties have been negotiating include the teachers’ salaries and a new schedule that gets teachers in the classrooms more, the latter starting in the school year 2019-2020.

The STA examined teachers’ contracts from the other schools in the South Coast Athletic Conference (SCC) and compared their salary schedule and longevity package (a stipend teachers get after they have spent a long time at a school) and discovered that teachers from Somerset come in last for pay.

In fact, they discovered a trend: from year one to seven, the salary schedule of Somerset schools is pretty much the same as the other schools in the SCC. However, in the eighth year, the salary of teachers in the STA is drastically lower than the other schools. Once year 11 is reached, there is roughly a $6,500 difference between the salary of Somerset teachers and teachers of the other SCC schools.

As a result of the drastic drop off in pay during the eighth to eleventh year, Somerset has been losing good teachers to other districts that pay their teachers more money.

“You commonly hear the phrase ‘doing more with less,’” Scott says. “Teachers are now doing more with less and less.”

He says he knows of two STA members that are actively seeking other jobs because they are concerned with the future finances of the town.

Scott has been affected by the issue with the contracts in his retirement, as he has seen a substantial increase in medical insurance costs and fees associated with medical care.

Catherine says that she has had a few experiences with her teachers leaving during the year and that it has affected her negatively, as it has resulted in an uncomfortably large class size or an unqualified teacher.

“As a future teacher, it makes me almost certain that I won’t be teaching in Somerset when I’m looking for a job,” Catherine says. “I love the people and they’ve always been amazing to me as I’ve gone through school, but as a security thing I know I won’t be able to work in Somerset.”

Machado agrees that Somerset teachers are “grossly underpaid.”

Sheehan says for the last 20 years that she has been working in Somerset, she has heard how Somerset needed to be conservative with its money because the power plants were closing. However, the power plants only recently shut down.

When power plants provided the bulk of the tax relief, she wonders “why wasn’t Somerset proactive and building new schools at that point in time and paying their teachers a livable wage?”

However, the School Committee discovered that Somerset teachers only spend about 63% of the time teaching in classrooms whereas other schools’ teachers teach between 71 and 75% of the time.

Sheehan says that this is because those schools do not have any non-instructional time but that the Somerset middle school and high school teachers have duties that they have been required to do instead of teaching. Sheehan says that when you combine instructional and duty time, they reach the 75% mark, the same as other SCC schools.

Machado says that for every teacher they are paying $45 to $60 an hour to do duties, they can hire three or four ground supervisors to complete the same tasks, paying them $13 an hour, instead.

Machado says the elephant in the room is that if the teachers are in classrooms more, “we may not need as many teachers. There will be a reduction, how much I don’t know, but there will be some effect in reductions.”

The teachers and School Committee are now trying to find a way to get teachers the higher pay they need without placing a heavy burden on the taxpayers. This solution comes in the form of a new schedule for the middle and high school teachers that reduces the number of duties mandated by their contract while increasing the time they spend in the classroom. If this new schedule is passed, the teachers will receive a raise.

However, nothing that the School Committee is asking about the new schedule is affecting the elementary school teachers.

“If anything, the elementary teachers are just being held back because of the middle school and high school teachers,” Machado says.

If the middle and high school teachers agree on a new schedule, the elementary school teachers will receive an 8% raise. However, if a new schedule is not agreed upon, they will not.

“We in Somerset are no longer living in the Camelot days,” Machado says. “We have two power plants that are no longer in service. We are no longer getting $3.5 million from the state to help us out. We are now in the situation where a majority of our funds are being paid by the citizens. I cannot ask our citizens to pay teachers higher alone.”

Recently, the negotiations between the School Committee and the STA have been taken public on the Our Town: Somerset Facebook page.

Sheehan says the Facebook page has “opened the door for the public to ask questions because there are a lot of misconceptions.”

Some of these misconceptions include that teachers get a cost of living raise every year and that they only work seven hours a day.

Sheehan says that she has “never gotten a cost of living raise. Our raises are collectively bargained and they’ve been very poor for the past four contracts at least.”

Machado says that “these are very hard working people. I really hope the town realizes that it’s not easy and they’re very focused on the kids.”

Both the School Committee and the STA agree that a new schedule is needed to get teachers in the classroom more and that teachers deserve a higher pay. The question is then: why is there still no contract?

Both Sheehan and Machado agree that the answer lies in a trust issue.

“Everything that I want is exactly what they want. The only problem is that the STA doesn’t trust the School Committee, the School Committee doesn’t trust the STA, and the teachers don’t trust the administration at the high school,” Machado says.

Sheehan says that the STA does not trust the School Committee because every time they say something untrue, it “erodes the trust between the two bodies.”

The School Committee does not believe that the STA is negotiating in good faith. Machado cites the events that took place two meetings ago where the STA agreed to a 7% raise and nothing else.

“We were on the right track, but after the last meeting, this set us back to almost the beginning again,” Machado says.

The School Committee and STA have meetings set for June to discuss the contract further. The goal is to have a contract ready for ratification by the middle to the end of June.

In order to resolve this dispute, Sheehan says she knows “we can’t go back and correct the sins of the past, but we absolutely have to look to the future.”

 

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Somerset Teachers React to Working a Year Without a Contract