News & Events

Teachers union’s objection bolstered

State panel finds contract disparity

By James Vaznis, Globe Staff  |  October 5, 2009

The Boston Teachers Union’s objection to the Teach for America program has sparked an investigation by the state Division of Labor Relations, which has determined that a strong likelihood exists that the Boston School Committee violated the union contract when signing an agreement with the highly regarded national program.

Some of the possible violations center around differences between the union contract and the Teach for America agreement, which essentially appears to give the 19 Teach for America recruits greater rights in retaining their positions in the event of any layoffs.

That prospect is significant because the Boston Teachers Union has questioned the wisdom of bringing in the national program at a time when budget cuts have forced the city to lay off roughly three dozen teachers in the last school year. City finances are also expected to remain tight for the foreseeable future, school officials have said.

“Bestowing special privileges on a select class of individuals without negotiating with the union and extending those privileges to all employees is not fair or equitable,’’ said Richard Stutman, president of the teachers union, which notified the state of its concerns in July.

William Horwath, Boston’s assistant superintendent for human resources, said the School Committee did not intend to break any collective bargaining rules when it entered into an agreement last summer with Teach for America, which school officials viewed as a promising strategy to boost the recruitment of minority teachers.

“We are looking at it and trying to address any discrepancies at this point,’’ Horwath said.

The dispute between the teachers union and the district is unusual, according to Teach for America, a nearly 20-year-old community service program that has placed 4,100 recruits in urban and rural schools nationwide.

“We have a long and successful track record of working with school departments across the country,’’ said Kerci Marcello Stroud, a Teach for America spokeswoman. “We have similar agreements with each district we work with.’’

This school year marks Teach for America’s first foray into Massachusetts. The group has provided approximately 50 teachers to Boston, Cambridge, Chelsea, and Revere.

The numbers are expected to increase in those districts in subsequent years, and state education officials are interested in expanding the program to other urban areas that are struggling to recruit qualified teachers.

The program has been particularly effective in helping districts nationwide to find teachers in hard-to-fill areas such as the sciences, math, special education, and programs for non-English speaking students.

Many of the Boston candidates are serving in those areas and are among more than 160 teachers hired this year. The laid-off teachers could not fill those vacancies, due to a lack of certification, although the union contends the district should have retrained them.

Under program guidelines, districts make a two-year commitment to each candidate, paying a first-year teaching salary, which in Boston is about $46,000.

The two-year stint, however, could be in conflict with the Boston Teachers Union contract, which guarantees new teachers only one year of service, according to the state complaint.

The labor relations division, which conducted an initial in-person investigation Sept. 14, is looking into whether the School Committee should have ironed out the differences with the union before signing the Teach for America agreement.

Another area of dispute is a portion of the Teach for America contract that calls for the creation of a rehiring pool for its candidates in the event of a layoff. Such an arrangement does not exist for other new teachers working under the teachers union contract.

“Based on the evidence presented during this investigation, I find probable cause to believe that a violation occurred,’’ Erica F. Crystal, a labor relations investigator, wrote in the complaint, which is dated Sept. 23 and was received by the union this week. She did not identify the specific violation.

The state investigation also is examining whether the School Committee has wrongfully withheld information for the last several months from the teachers union about which positions have been filled by the Teach for America recruits.

Horwath said the district has provided the union with the requested information, but Stutman said the union does not have it yet.

The school district, along with the union, will have an opportunity to respond to the complaint at a hearing yet to be scheduled.

Stutman said the union would have no problems with the “enhancements’’ in the Teach for America agreement as long as the School Committee “extends them to all employees.’’