Amherst Teachers union, school committees share far different perspectives after 5-hour mediation session

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 03-31-2023 8:33 PM

AMHERST — Representatives for the Amherst Pelham Education Association and the Amherst and regional school committees are confirming that a contract mediation session lasted about five hours last Friday.

But there doesn’t appear to be any similar agreement on whether the sides are getting closer to reaching a deal on a new contract that expired last July 1.

Amherst School Committee Chairwoman Allison McDonald struck an optimistic tone in an email sent to families and posted to her official Facebook page, providing an update on contract negotiations with the union that represents teachers, paraeducators and clerical staff at the Amherst and Pelham elementary schools and the regional public schools.

“At our meeting today, we made substantial progress in our negotiations and reached multiple tentative agreements,” McDonald wrote.

Offers on the table from the committee include increasing cost-of-living adjustments to 2.75% for each of the three years of the contract. Previously, the offer was for a cost-of-living adjustment of 2.5% in fiscal 2023, the first year of the contract, matched in fiscal 2024 and then down to 2% for the third year. The union has countered with a request for a cost-of-living adjustment for teachers and clerical staff of 3.25% in the first year, 4% in the second year and 5% in fiscal year 2025.

The union’s executive board, though, issued a statement expressing doubt that a deal is imminent.

“The offer touted by McDonald in her recent update is substantially below offers made in recently settled agreements throughout the commonwealth. The district has not been able to retain adequate staffing at the current wages. Each building has had unfilled paraprofessional positions since the beginning of the school year.”

The union also describes an effort to “jury-rig” the budget shortfalls through contracted workers, paying them more than union members.

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McDonald’s email notes that the latest offer also adds multiple increases for paraeducators, including an additional 3.5% increase for those at the top of the pay scale, and a significant reclassification of clerical staff that offers an additional 5% to 10% increase for the lowest paid clerical staff.

The committee has to make offers for pay increases that are within budgets that have to be balanced and affordable to member towns, she wrote.

“These negotiations have been happening in the midst of very difficult budget planning, and we’ve had to make some really tough decisions,” McDonald wrote. “We share the dismay that many are feeling about the impacts on our students. And, our collective dismay is compounded by the tension felt around the unsettled contracts with the APEA.”

The union continues to criticize the committee for not meeting face to face, instead working through a mediator. Even when in the same building, that mediator travels from one location to another, delaying the negotiation process in relaying information.

“Negotiations started over 15 months ago, with ample opportunities for the School Committee to advocate for adequate funding to make offers that APEA could accept,” the union board said.

“School Committee tactics have been to constantly delay the process, hoping that APEA will accept their disrespectful offers, claiming there is no money to compensate educators for the difficult work that they do. They consistently choose to make different decisions about what they value, and it has never been educators.”

McDonald disputes that assertion and said the aim is to reach a fair and sustainable contract.

“We value our educators and invest over 80% of our annual budgets on staff salaries and benefits. The compensation packages we offer are among the strongest in our area, and remain competitive under our proposal.”

It was also the union’s decision to push off negotiations to the next session on April 11, rather than going deeper into the night on Friday.

“After five hours of mediation, we were prepared to stay longer and continue to negotiate to reach an agreement; the APEA team declined and chose instead to meet again at a later date,” McDonald wrote.

The APEA negotiations team had been unwilling to meet more than once per month between October and March, despite offers to meet more frequently in the intervening months.

At odds overmeeting location

Another indication of the tension showed up in where in the building the sides were meeting.

McDonald said the Regional School Committee negotiations team posted the mediation session to begin in the cafeteria. That would allow both the committee and union representatives to caucus separately in nearby large conference rooms on the main level.

“The APEA team did not make us aware of where they were meeting nor did they ever request that we meet on the same floor,” McDonald said.

The union representatives being on the second floor, though, meant that the mediator had to make use of the staircase.

“In this case, even meeting in the same building, School Committee refused to meet on the same floor, requiring the mediator to go up and down the stairs,” the union stated.

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