Amherst educators decry low pay in stakeout of town budget meeting

  • Amherst-Pelham Education Association members rally outside Town Hall, Monday. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Amherst-Pelham Education Association members rally outside Town Room at Town Hall, Monday. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Monday, November 14, 2022

AMHERST — A paraeducator at Summit Academy, the special education day school housed at Amherst Regional High School, Alex Lopez has seen staff departures that he says are likely related to low salaries.

“We are here advocating for more money because we have seen colleagues walking out the door, and we’re left holding the bag,” Lopez told the Town Council on Monday.

Should teachers, paraeducators and other staff leave their positions, which many have indicated through surveys they are considering, one of the reasons families move to Amherst will be lost, Amherst Pelham Education Association President Meka Magee said.

“Educators are leaving the field. That is how stressful working in education is,” Magee said.

Lopez and Magee were among those who took their concerns directly to councilors during a union action at the council’s meeting on Monday, where a financial indicators presentation was being made in advance of development of next year’s budgets.

The teachers union is continuing to object to mediation over contract negotiations and had teachers and others, many wearing red, standing on the sidewalk outside Town Hall and lining the hallway leading to the Town Room holding signs reading “Value education? Value educators!” “One job should be enough” and “You can’t put students first if you put educators last.”

During the meeting of the Budget Coordinating Group, made up of the Town Council, Amherst School Committee and trustees for the Jones Library, Finance Director Sean Mangano said current projections show there could be a 2.5% increase across the board in next year’s budgets.

Danielle Seltzer, a member of the the Amherst Pelham Education Association negotiating team, said their last proposal was for 3.5%, 4% and 5% raises over the three years of the contract, but that is far from the school’s offer of 2.5%, 2% and 2%. Seltzer said Amherst’s retention rate for teachers of 77% is below that of neighboring districts.

School Committee Chairwoman Allison McDonald, who has been negotiating for the schools, said the latest proposal related to compensation represented a total dollar amount that was $12 million greater than the schools’ initial proposal. That was already $2.4 million above what was included in the budget, so now the union’s offer is $14.4 million above what is available.

McDonald said mediation was sought after a complaint of unfair bargaining practices was filed against the union.

‘Not adequate’

Before Monday’s demonstration, Claire Cocco, communications chairwoman for the union, said members want to explain the pressure families are under from inflation, and that there is value to transparency and democracy.

“We certainly feel like 2% is not adequate compensation,” Cocco said. “Our message is we’d like the district and the town to work harder.”

“This is an opportunity to speak to our representatives and decision-makers face to face,” Cocco said. “The School Committee has refused to meet face to face. Instead, we’re still in mediation, but we would like to speak to them more directly.”

School Committee member Peter Demling said having to add $14.4 million to the school budget to meet the union’s demands might not be possible.

“The Amherst School Committee and the Regional School Committee have no authority to set our budget amount,” Demling said.

School Committee member Jennifer Shiao said there should be an opportunity for the schools to tell town officials what budgets are needed for the best staffing.

“We are saying what we can afford,” Town Manager Paul Bockelman said.

Others disputed that.

“While the finances of Amherst seem to be thriving, it comes at the expense of its educators and schools, and its unionized employees,” said Mick O’Connor, a middle school teacher and member of the Contract Action Team of the APEA.

A mother of a middle school and an elementary school student, Laura Pagliarulo, said educators appear to be paid the same on an hourly basis as she pays her babysitter, and doesn’t see that the community prioritizing education, even though she moved to Amherst from Washington, D.C.

“These educators are reasons families like myself come to this area,” Pagliarulo said.

Vira Cage of Longmeadow Drive said it’s disgraceful that the town can find money for projects like overhauling the North Common but not to shore up employees at the bottom of the pay scale. “I’m really concerned about the paraeductaor salaries,” Cage said.

High school student Julian Hynes of Pine Grove said educators are committed to their students. “It’s embarrassing our school district has to have a mini-Survival Center for some of our paraeducators,” Hynes said.

The topic of staff departing came up at a recent conversation with Superintendent Michael Morris, where Eve Weinbaum, a parent and union organizer at the University of Massachusetts, told him she worries about staff morale.

Another parent, Angelica Bernal, said her son had to start over his program this fall after his one-to-one paraeducator left. “I can’t count how many paras have left for other positions,” Bernal said.

District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam said what she heard was heartfelt comments about inequity, but wondered whether the Town Council could address the matter.

“I didn’t know it was this bad,” Pam said. “I am embarrassed for the town of Amherst that can be paying that kind of wage.”