As strike turns a week old, parents threaten to turn the car around

With no end in sight for a teacher strike that’s raged furiously for a week, Newton parents stepped in Wednesday and metaphorically ordered both sides to shut up and play nice.

Leaders from the city’s parent organizations penned an open letter to Mayor Fuller, the School Committee and the Newton Teachers Association on Wednesday morning, “Calling for Respectful Communications and Joint Updates.”

In the letter, the PTO leaders write that they’re confused by the contradictory messaging from the School Committee and mayor on one side and the teachers’ union on the other.

“As parent organization leaders, we care deeply for our parents, our educators, and our students. We worked tirelessly after the pandemic to repair our communities and bring them back together. We cannot sit idly by as we are torn apart again. We value open communication and the sharing of ideas and information. We request that all parties consider how their communications (including social media posts, emails, and press conferences) are contributing to the current divisiveness and what message they are sending to our students about how to respectfully negotiate from disparate positions. We call on you to negotiate in good faith, communicate respectfully, and consider only releasing joint statements at the end of each negotiation session.”

Newton teachers have been on strike since last Friday.

Each day, the NTA has held rallies and press conferences blaming the mayor for not allocating more money for the schools, and the mayor and School Committee have held press conferences insisting there isn’t enough money to meet the NTA’s demands without cutting staff and services citywide.

Some evenings have seen separate press conferences hosted by both sides in the same place, back-to-back. On Tuesday, for example, TV camera crews set up outside the Education Center for an NTA press conference, and before the teachers even left the scene the camera crews were being ushered inside the building for the mayor’s follow-up.

Two sides, two messages, same building, same hour.

The same was expected for Wednesday evening, as both sides prepared to explain why another day of negotiations had failed to produce an agreement and why children across Newton would be kept home from school again the next day.

What’s the holdup?

Newton’s schools took a beating from the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of which is likely to be felt for years.

The isolation of remote learning exacerbated an already growing need for more mental health care in schools. Teachers have spoken at NTA rallies about having students as young as eight years old suffering from anxiety and exhibiting self-harm.

Meanwhile, inflation has driven the city’s expenses up while teachers and staff struggle to get by with effectively less and less.

The pandemic sped up the mayor’s collision course with the teachers’ union:

  • Of the $63.5 million the city received in the American Rescue Plan Act, only about $13 million has been spent on schools. And most of that has gone toward school building projects, not toward staff or programs.
  • Last year, Fuller requested three tax levy overrides—two to pay for school building projects and a third to add more than $9 million into the operating budget—and voters approved the first two but rejected the third.
  • Last summer, Fuller announced a $46 million surplus and a plan to put much of the money into a stabilization account to incrementally increase funding for the schools over the next several years.
  • The City Council rejected the mayor’s proposal in October, with many councilors saying they wanted more money for the schools now, not later.
  • The NTA is demanding higher cost-of-living pay increases, higher pay for support staff, more social workers in the city’s elementary schools and more paid parental leave time, among other things.
  • The NTA and its supporters are calling on the mayor to “find the funds” to meet those demands.
  • Recently, Fuller and the School Committee have said that in order to meet the NTA’s demands, 60 teachers would have to be cut next year, and 60 the year after, and 60 the year after that. They haven’t said where that number comes from or what fiscal providence led them to it.
  • Now, Newton teachers have been working without a contract for several months. And last week, they decided that, as they’ve been chanting by the thousands outside City Hall every day, “enough is enough.”

What’s next?

Teacher strikes are illegal in Massachusetts. The NTA continues to incur fines each day the strike continues, with fines doubling each day and a deadline of 8 p.m.

Thursday’s fine is $200,000, and if the strike continues, Friday’s fine will be $400,000. And next week, the fine amounts will be in the millions.

NTA leaders have said the union is willing to go “as long as it takes” to have its demands met.

A Middlesex Superior Court judge has said that if the NTA does not comply and end the strike by Thursday night, the NTA will be brought back into court and face more severe punishment.

“Collectively, we need to figure this out and do so immediately,” Mayor Fuller wrote in an email to the community Wednesday night. “With every passing day the fines are doubling for the union and with every passing day the stress and worry seem to be doubling as well for our community. Our children need to be in school.”

The mayor’s email did have one ray of hope.

“The two sides are talking – that’s progress,” she wrote.