Metro, Newton

Community Members Question NPS’ Response to Israel-Hamas War, NPS Bargaining Progress at School Committee Meeting

Newton residents criticized Newton Public Schools’ (NPS) communications responding to the Israel-Hamas war and NPS faculty argued against teacher attendance policies and funding claims by the Newton School Committee (NSC) on Monday night. 

Newton resident Ashia Ray said that NPS fostered an unsafe environment for Palestinian and Muslim students to speak out in schools after the onset of the Israel-Hamas war.

“[My friends] told me stories of their children actively hiding their pain and terror at school, afraid to express grief over loved ones under siege in Gaza,” Ray said. “They’re not just afraid of bullying from students, although that is a very valid fear. They’re afraid of our administration.”

The immediate response to the conflict by NPS did not fully explain the situation to families, according to Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman, an NPS parent.

“The email sent by many of our schools did not name what happened as a massacre of Jews or make any mention of the immediate and constant rallies and rhetoric taking place across the country,” Berkman said. 

Palestinian American and Newton resident Eman Ansari expressed a desire for Newton to come together as a community. 

“We are all responsible for the safety of our … community and belonging of all of our children, and in this circumstance, I would emphasize the belonging of Jewish children and Palestinian children and anyone that supports either side—we are all one side,” Ansari said. 

Several NPS teachers also attended the meeting—and rallied prior to it—to condemn contract policies affecting the sick bank, which allows NPS staff to donate a sick day to others, and address how NPS funding is impacting the negotiations. 

Current negotiations for the Newton Teachers Association (NTA) contract do not allow first-year teachers to have access to the district’s sick bank and reduce the number of allotted first-year teacher sick days. 

The current contract negotiations between the NTA and the NSC come after a campaign to raise taxes, providing additional funding for the NPS budget, partially failed in the spring. The district faced scrutiny after it announced plans to cut staff positions earlier this year as a result of the failed override vote.

Newton North High School teacher Kathryn Teissier du Cros highlighted the benefit of first-year teachers accessing the sick bank by sharing her experience relying on the sick bank to support her family financially after giving birth. She said NPS teacher Kristen Fucarile utilized the sick bank as a first-year instructor while she had cancer, allowing her to continue teaching and receive an income. 

“Kristen was immediately supported by families, colleagues, and most importantly the sick bank,” Teissier du Cros said. “This gave her the opportunity to focus on her health while still maintaining a biweekly paycheck.”

Teissier du Cros criticized the NSC for these attendance policies acting as a strong hand in negotiations and creating a harmful environment for teachers across NPS.

“We used to work in an NPS that assumed best intentions rather than creating an environment where your staff is scared to take a day off for themselves or take care of a child or elderly parent,” she said. 

Jayme Ellis, Burr Elementary School art teacher and NTA webmaster, said the NTA rejects the NSC’s justification that a lack of funding is causing an impasse in negotiations between the union and NPS. 

“We reject the claim that there is not enough money to settle a fair contract with new educators,” Ellis said. “Money is available, $29 million in free or surplus cash, $26 million in an overlay account, $3 million per year in additional revenues from Eversource.” 

Mike Schlegelmilch, a Newton North English teacher and NTA Contract Action Team co-chair, said the NSC has made false updates to the Newton community, pitting families against teachers and lowering teacher morale. 

“It’s time to stop the arcane legal maneuvers spearheaded by your lawyer—the misleading and divisive messaging, the cascade of directives that is killing educator morale—and come to the table and bargain in good faith,” Schlegelmilch said.

October 25, 2023