‘As long as it takes’: Newton teachers strike for sixth day, fines pile up

Like Bill Murray in the 1993 film, “Groundhog Day,” Newton seems to be living the same day over and over, when it comes to the teachers’ strike.

School is cancelled for Wednesday, as the Newton Teachers Association and the Newton School Committee did not reach a contract deal or any deal to end the teacher strike on Tuesday.

“We’re very far apart,” School Committee Chair Chris Breszki said.

A rocky start

It was the fifth day of the strike, and negotiations hit a brick wall after just a half hour when the representatives from the Newton Teachers Association walked out of the room.

The School Committee released a statement Tuesday afternoon saying that after they asked union representatives to discuss “time and learning” (how the day is structured, the frequency of professional development time, when school starts and finishes each day, etc.).

“The School Committee asked the union to end the strike and to continue bargaining during the school day. The union declined,” the School Committee statement reads. “We attempted to discuss the time and learning proposal with the union, but they declined to hear any explanation. NTA leadership began shouting and then walked out of the negotiations. We note the union did have a rally scheduled for approximately the time they walked out of our negotiations, which was advertised yesterday on their social media.”

NTA President Michael Zilles confirmed that union representatives walked out of the negotiations and accused the School Committee of focusing on the time and learning issue to avoid the host of other demands the union has made.

“We walked out because they weren’t willing to give us any response on anything that wer prepared for them,” Zilles said. “There was no reason to be in the room.”

A rocky finish

Talks resumed later in the afternoon, and at 7:30 p.m. the NTA held a press conference outside the Education Center in which Ryan Normandin, member of the union’s negotiations team, said union members were “appalled at the lack of progress in these negotiations.”

“The NTA negotiations team has been available day and night to bargain, and we have an urgent sense of responsibility to reopen schools, but that can only happen when we have a fair contract,” Normandin said.

The NTA is demanding more mental health staff in the city’s elementary schools, more parental leave for employees and higher cost-of-living pay increases for faculty and staff.

Mayor Ruthanne Fuller has said that meeting the NTA’s demands would mean staff cuts.

Following the NTA press conference, Fuller and Breszki held a press conference of their own inside the Education Center. Both reiterated the idea that meeting the NTA would mean staff cuts.

“Under their [the NTA’s] proposal, if it were implemented, we would have to lay off 60 teachers next year,” Breszki said. “And we would have to lay off approximately 60 teachers over the following five years. And the high school class sizes? The incremental supports and social workers? None of that happens.”

Breszki didn’t go into detail about why meeting the NTA demands would mean service and staff cuts, and Fuller—who decides how much money the schools get—didn’t say why she didn’t put more of the city’s free cash and American Rescue Plan money toward the schools.

The NTA’s fight is already an expensive one. Fines have doubled since a Middlesex Superior Court imposed them days ago. Wednesday’s fine is $100,000, and Thursday would bring a fine of $200,000 if the strike continues.

Zilles said the union is willing to stick out the strike “as long as it takes—One more day than the School Committee’s willing to hold out.”

More negotiations are planned for Wednesday at 11 a.m.