Newton parents support teachers, urge compromise as negotiations continue

If Mayor Ruthanne Fuller is saving money for a rainy day, well, parent Kate Wissel says, it’s raining.

Thousands of families are dealing with the fallout of the ongoing strike. Over 11,700 students attend Newton Public Schools, including more than 400 METCO students (the most among the METCO partner districts). 

Newton parents expect the union and the district, including the mayor, to make concessions – big ones – to get students back in classrooms as soon as possible, but recognize the evident lack of trust between all parties.

The Newton Teachers Association (NTA) voted to strike on Jan. 17, and Monday is the seventh day of school canceled due to the ongoing strike. The NTA and School Committee bargaining teams have been negotiating every day since, and had been negotiating this contract for the past year and a half.

Though there are several key issues at the heart of negotiations, including parental leave, healthcare structures, and cost of living adjustments (COLAs), the NTA continues to assert that the city has the budget – and only lacks the political will – to cover the kind of contract they want.

Newton parents share nuanced perspectives

The impact of the ongoing school cancellation is felt differently across Newton’s families, undoubtedly depending on whether they work remotely or in the office, can afford childcare or have other family support, and the varying needs of their children.

Wissel and her husband, Shawn Fitzgibbons, have two kids at Bigelow Middle School. Wissel is a veterinarian and works exclusively at the clinic, while Fitzgibbons works a hybrid schedule.

Their son has an IEP and receives “incredible” support at Bigelow, and Fitzgibbons said not having access to that right now has been a “significant problem and real concern.”

Nonetheless, Fitzgibbons supports the strike “100%.”

“No teacher is trying to get rich, they are trying to get a fair wage for the hard work they do,” he said. “Everyone is forgetting that right now… The mayor needs to reallocate the city budget to immediately meet the NTAs compensation proposal.”

Wissel’s biggest fear isn’t more school cancellations, it’s the possibility of teachers being forced to settle a contract they don’t want, and educators leaving the district because of it. She specifically praised Bigelow special education teacher Jon Gulloni for providing life-saving support for her son.

“I wish [the strike] wasn’t happening, it’s certainly very hard on our family logistically, and hard on our son emotionally and academically,” she said. “And I think every minute is worth it if the teachers get what they are asking for.”

Wissel acknowledged she might be “singing a different tune” if she had a child who was more cognitively impaired, needed physical school resources, or got meals from their school. While she’s watched regression in her child this week, she says the backslide is worth it to know teachers are going to stay.

“They deserve it,” she said. “The sacrifice and the toll it’s taken on our family is nothing compared to the toll that years of working in a hostile environment without a contract has taken on teachers and their families.”

Wissel wants to see Mayor Fuller not just stretch, but step out of her comfort zone, and spend Newton’s budget to settle a “better” contract for teachers.

“Does she need to fund every penny they demand? No, but she has to budge,” Wissel said. “She needs to make a massive flex on this, and then the NTA will have to do the same. …I would expect [the NTA] to also flex, but the complete rigidity of the mayor right now makes this intractable and doesn’t set a good example for the students she claims to be fighting for.”

Could bringing in an outside perspective build trust?

In a Jan. 28 statement, Superintendent Anna Nolin acknowledged a lack of trust in negotiations.

“Fundamentally, the NTA leadership has transmitted to me that the past few years that trust has been a major issue between all parties in Newton,” she wrote. “I think we can all agree that we are seeing that lack of trust play out in negotiations as well.”

Last week, the Newton PTO Council called out the mayor, school committee, and union for sharing “contradictory information” and asked them only to release joint statements.

“No one knows what information to trust, and it’s clear we’re not all operating from a common set of facts,” the council wrote. “All of this confusion is unnecessarily pitting community members against each other.”

Newton parent Tammy Tsikar called for an independent audit of the city budget to help build trust between the mayor, district, and union. She and her husband have two kids in the district, one at Newton South High School and the other at Oak Hill Middle School. Their middle schooler has an IEP, and Tsikar said the school cancellation has been especially hard on him.

She’s served on PTOs for both schools, and emphasized her continued support and appreciation for Newton’s teachers, especially the special education teachers who have worked with her child.

Though she’s heartbroken to see all the fighting online, Tsikar shared an analytical perspective on the strike and negotiations.

“There’s no trust between them,” she said. “I could simply say, ‘put more money into schools,’ but we have to be realistic. I’m an accountant…I want to know the actual budget. …I have my parents, my kids, a house, so as a budget, how much do I put in each category? I don’t want to simply say, “I want to put money towards my kids but forget about my parents.”

If the union and residents are asserting the city has the budget to finance this contract, Tsikar says Mayor Fuller should request an outside review on whether the city truly has the budget to fund the NTAs proposals.

“I love teachers, I know they deserve more,” she said. “I just want someone to tell us what is the best fit for the city for everybody.”

At the end of the day, though, Tsikar said it’s “time to compromise.”