Progress in Newton teacher contract dispute? Depends on who’s asked

Newton teacher contract negotiations are moving forward little by little, with the Newton School Committee offering slightly higher cost-of-living pay increases for the next few years than initially set, Superintendent Anna Nolin announced in an email update last weekend.

The School Committee is set to meet on Nov. 20 to discuss the latest developments in teacher contract negotiations—now in state mediation—but Nolin shared a few details in her email update.

The School Committee now proposes a 2 percent COLA for 2024, 2 percent for 2025 and 3 percent for 2026, she said.

“We are moving in the right direction, albeit very slowly,” Nolin wrote.

Nolin also said the Newton Teachers Association has “modified its proposal” regarding health care benefits.

But not so fast.

NTA President Mike Zilles said on Thursday that the NTA rejected a School Committee proposal to shift more health care costs to employees while health insurance premiums rose by about 18 percent last year.

“In spite of this, in the bargaining session Dr. Nolin refers to, we did counter-offer to accept increases to copays for urgent care and to moderately increase the percentage of premiums employees pay for a PPO plan,” Zilles said.

“That same night the school committee countered that proposal with a proposal that actually asked for more givebacks than their original proposal. That felt disrespectful of our offer to compromise.”

The School Committee tied that second proposal, Zilles added, to the third year COLA offer.

“So while Dr. Nolin praises the progress made, we did not perceive things in quite the same way,” Zilles said.

On Wednesday night, Zilles said, during state mediation session, the NTA withdrew its counter-offer and rejected the School Committee’s proposal, and the NTA proposed a fourth year be added to the contract.

 “It is common, when negotiations extend into what would be the first year of a new contract, to add a one year contract to cover that first year, and to have the three-year contract begin the following year,” Zilles said. “As we are well into the first year of what would be a new contract now, that seemed to us to be a way to perhaps open up new possibilities.”

Zilles said he found it “peculiar” that the superintendent’s public statements make it seem as if she’s not an active participant in the room with the School Committee when these negotiations are taking place.

“I think the School Committee and the mayor felt fortunate to find a candidate as qualified as Dr. Nolin,” Zilles said. “Yet how long before she begins to feel like she was offered a bait and switch–she came to do one job, but the agenda of the school committee and mayor right now—to get the cheapest contract possible no matter what the costs in employee morale—means her real job now is to do damage control.”

Zilles said he worried the strain in relationship between the NTA and the superintendent may drive her out of the district.

“And I would add that because in many ways Dr. Nolin has supported the School Committee’s efforts to impede our union’s right to advocate for ourselves, she has already lost trust with many NTA members.” Zilles said.

“Will she stay? Will she want to stay?” Zilles continued. “Will she feel that her reputation has been so tainted by association that doesn’t want to stay? Will she resent the NTA for the contract campaign we have run? Will the school committee scapegoat her for ongoing tensions after negotiations end? In short, will she, or the School Committee, decide that this is not the right place for her anymore?”

The School Committee is reviewing the NTA’s new health benefits proposal, and Zilles said the NTA isn’t expecting a response until after Thanksgiving.

The School Committee chair and vice chair have not, as of Friday night, replied to request for comment.