People in bright red shirts made their way down Commonwealth Avenue Wednesday morning, ending at Newton’s City Hall. Holding “Support Newton Educators” signs and chanting “This is what a union looks like,” the 1,000 teachers and support staff gathered on the Hall’s lawn to protest working for a second year without a contract.
“Going back to school without a contract is no longer going to be business as usual in the City of Newton,” said Michael Zilles, the president of the Newton Teachers Association, to the crowd.
Teachers and staff work on three-year contracts in the Newton School District—the last contract expired a year ago and a one-year extension was issued. The contract still has not been renegotiated. The frustration has been magnified due to the regularity of working without a contract, Zilles said in an earlier interview with The Heights.
“It happens every time,” said Pat McFarland, a teacher who has been at Newton South High School for 16 years. “When it comes for a contract, the city is always saying we don’t have any money.”
Teachers chatted with coworkers and introduced themselves to people from other buildings as they gathered on both sides of the street. A police detail helped them cross and held back traffic. Some cars, and one excavator, honked as they went by to show their support, prompting cheers from the crowd.
“I think one of the reasons this is getting so much traction this year is because we’re sick of this cycle of signing a three-year contract and basically working without any cost of living increases for a fourth year,” said Arielle Miles, a science teacher entering her seventh year at Newton North High School. “And negotiations started a school year ago, so negotiations have been going on for a whole year and they still haven’t been resolved.”
One of the things the union is negotiating for is better pay for teacher’s aides, who work with students who might need extra attention in the classroom.
“The salaries that they earn [are] not enough to live on and yet these are the people we really depend on and they need to work second jobs just to survive,” Miles said.
Newton’s teacher salaries have fallen behind nearby districts, making it less competitive during the hiring process for new staff, McFarland said. Without better salaries, Newton could fail to hire the best teachers available. Teachers often go beyond what the contract demands of them, he said.
“Teachers do an enormous amount of extra work,” said McFarland. “Whether it’s putting in their own money, whether it’s staying after extra time for students. They go way out of their way. They’re doing clubs for a very low stipend or coaching.”
What they do is a sign of good faith, he said, and they would like the district to return the favor. While the contract is not expected to be finished by students’ first day of school on Tuesday, the plan is to go in and conduct business as usual—for the most part.
“We are going to show up and teach the kids as usual,” Miles said. “What’s not going to be as usual is our faculty meetings.”
Teaches plan to remain completely silent during faculty meetings, which are held with teachers, department heads, principals, and vice principals. Department heads and vice principals are in the same union, but the principal is separate. The principal is supportive of the union’s efforts, Miles said. The hope is that the pressure will move up the ladder, reaching Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller and Ruth Goldman, chair of the Newton Education Committee.
Fuller was the subject of several signs at the protest, including one that was styled as a missing persons sign, asking if anyone had seen the mayor. She was disinvited from speaking at Newton South High School’s graduation this past June. Fuller sent a Town Update out moments after the teachers disbanded in the morning, saying that she asked if she could speak at the protest, but was declined by Zilles.
“I know it’s frustrating for you to start the new school year without a contract,” Fuller wrote in her update. “And I know the school budget allocation has been central to the discussions.”
The Newton School District has expanded by 1,480 students during the past 15 years, she wrote. Part of the budget has been allocated to handling that influx and making sure resources are available to everyone. The mayor did not cut public school funding when the Chapter 70 Education Grant was half a million dollars less than had been anticipated, she said.
“While we will not be able to agree to everything that you have put on the table, I will meet with your leadership and the leadership of the School Committee and look at everything and work with everyone to figure this out,” Fuller wrote.
The crowd listened to Zilles speak until 9:30 a.m., when it was time for them to go to their respective class buildings. The red shirts dotted Commonwealth Ave. as they went to prepare their classrooms for the school year.
“They need to understand we mean business,” Zilles said. “But not business as usual.”
Featured Image by Colleen Martin / Heights Editor