Strike, Day 4: The fines, the fury, the folk music singalong

Newton teachers remained on strike for the fourth day in a row, and they’re going for a fifth.

After a manic Monday full of negotiations, intense press conferences, a few musical numbers—complete with instruments—and uncertainty among students and parents, schools are closed for Tuesday.

“I believe in collective bargaining, but I do not support illegal strikes,” Fuller said Monday night during a joint press conference with School Committee Chair Chris Breszki in the Underwood Elementary School gymnasium. “Newton teachers are outstanding. They should be in their classrooms.”

Fines, more fines, and then?

A Middlesex Superior Court judge has imposed fines on the Newton Teachers Association that double every day the strike continues. The deadline for the NTA to call the strike off and avoid another fine is 8 p.m.

Monday’s fine was $25,000, so Tuesday’s will be $50,000. If the strike continues, the next day would bring a fine of $100,000.

“To the extent they do not comply on Thursday, the union is due back noon on Friday, and I will quote the judge, ‘to discuss a more meaningful approach to ensure compliance with the law,’” Breszki said.

One wouldn’t guess things were so dire by the mood at the teachers’ rally on the steps of City Hall earlier Monday afternoon. Teachers, students, parents and other supporters gathered and chanted and a few of the music teachers even led the crowd in song.

Can a deal be reached?

The negotiations, however, have been less Woodstock, more Full Metal Jacket.

After voters rejected Fuller’s $9.2 million tax levy override request last spring, Newton’s School Committee and the NTA have been in increasingly hostile negotiations over what money is available, and teachers have now been working without a contract for months.

Fuller announced a $46 million surplus last summer, largely the result of unused tax abatement funds and a settlement with Eversource. That brings the city’s free cash (money left over from the previous year) to $56 million for this fiscal year.

But millions of dollars of that have already been set for school building projects, school and city officials explained at a community gathering last Sunday, and Fuller proposed putting most of the surplus into a stabilization account to give the schools more money incrementally over the next eight years.

In 2032, the city will have paid off its pension fund and transitioned to paying into its Other Post Employment Benefits account, and that means tens of millions of dollars freed up each year, potentially for the schools.

The City Council rejected Fuller’s plan, with many councilors saying they want more money for the schools, and now.

The NTA is demanding higher cost-of-living pay increases, social workers in every elementary school, 60 days of paid parental leave and higher pay for support staff, among other things. Fuller has insisted there isn’t enough money to meet the NTA’s demands without cuts to staff and services.

NTA leaders have said the union is willing to keep the strike going as long as they have to in order to get their demands met.

“As a parent, it’s devastating,” Breszki, who has two children attending Newton schools, said.

The NTA and the School Committee are set to begin mediation again Tuesday at noon, Breszki confirmed. Although he was not optimistic about it.

“If I’m being realistic, my kids are scheduled for something else [other than school] on Thursday,” he said.