When the Newton School Committee convened for its first meeting of the new school year—and, in fact, its first in-person open attendance meeting in more than three years—at the Education Center Monday night, it was met with an army of teachers chanting union slogans, holding signs and putting their solidarity in full display.
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
The rally followed months of tempestuous contract negotiations between the Newton Teachers Association and the School Committee that have stalled around cost-of-living pay increase schedules. It also followed two days of hearings after the School Committee accused teachers of going on strike after the NTA boycotted a traditionally optional convocation ceremony last week.
But Monday’s rally was a cordial, friendly showdown—a confrontation of congeniality, showing the emotional complexity of engaging in political battle with neighbors and colleagues. Teachers waved at committee members (some even shared a hug) as they walked down the hall. Committee Chair Tamika Olschewski praised the Newton Teachers Association for their advocacy.
“I want all of the educators in the room to know that we are very pleased to have you joining us tonight and that we know that your rally outside has been engaging and that you are advocating hard for a settlement of a fair contract,” Olschewski said. “Each member of this committee and the NPS administrative staff wants that for you as well.”
The cheers and chants stopped briefly for a moment of silence in honor of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and again for the public comment portion of the meeting.
Where to send the anger
Things got adversarial again during the public comment portion, when teachers individually spoke their minds to the School Committee and Superintendent Anna Nolin.
Fran Rametta, who’s been teaching in Newton for 30 years, was one of them.
Rametta began her comments recalling how back when she began her career, “teachers were respected and valued” in a district “known for its excellence and inclusivity.”
“Fast-forward to today,” Rametta said. “We’ve weathered an historic pandemic that drastically changed our reality. The past few years have been challenging in many ways, and the effects of the pandemic continually reverberate throughout our system.”
Teachers had to work through an unprecedented pandemic and its aftermath, Rametta continued, risking their health and scared of students getting sick and dying, only to find themselves in another contract dispute this year.
“It is shocking that after all of the commitment and dedication the teachers consistently demonstrate to the children of Newton, that the School Committee would treat us in such an ugly and disrespectful way,” Rametta said. “Your attack on teachers is unprecedented, very public, and shameful.”
NTA President Michael Zilles said the source of the problem isn’t the School Committee but rather Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, who Zilles said has underfunded the city’s schools in budget requests for years.
“We’re going to have to keep doing this, because I don’t think they [School Committee members] are going to turn around,” Zilles said. “There’s still concern that they’re fighting with us rather than the mayor,” Zilles said. “I think they mayor is the source of the problem, and the more they fight us, they don’t give us a route for directing our campaign at the mayor.”
Recently, Fuller announced $40 million in surplus money as well as a plan for how she wants that money allocated. What she’s set aside for schools from that money, however, wouldn’t cover the cost-of-living increase changes the NTA is requesting.
To listen to all the comments from speakers at Monday’s School Committee meeting, visit the committee’s YouTube channel.