News & Events

Union blasts city schools overhaul plan

Teachers’ hours, pay, and seniority affected

By James Vaznis, Globe Staff  |  April 13, 2010

The Boston Teachers Union started galvanizing opposition yesterday to parts of Superintendent Carol R. Johnson’s plan to overhaul 12 underperforming schools, after she called for teachers to work dozens of additional hours without extra pay.

The proposal is part of an initial negotiating package Johnson sent to union officials over the weekend, under a new state law that gives superintendents greater leverage to make dramatic changes at state-designated underperforming schools over the objections of unions.

In a newsletter sent by e-mail yesterday to more than 5,000 union members, Richard Stutman, the union’s president, called Johnson’s proposals “ugly’’ and “insulting,’’ characterizing them as budget-cutting measures rather than innovative ideas to transform these schools.

“She’s stirred up a hornet’s nest,’’ Stutman said in an interview. “I think she has done herself irreparable harm to her relationships with teachers.’’

Johnson defended the proposals, which number more than a dozen, as necessary to bolster student achievement at the 12 schools, which the state identified as underperforming last month, and said that her planreflects economic realities.

“One of the challenges everyone is aware of is that we have a very difficult fiscal situation,’’ she said. “If we had all the resources in the world, we would want to compensate them’’ for the additional time.

Under the law enacted in January, school superintendents still must negotiate changes with their respective unions, but only under a 30-day timeline, much shorter than traditional bargaining. If negotiations on a proposal fail, the union has the right to appeal in an arbitration-like process. If that breaks down, a state education commissioner could ultimately decide the dispute.

The Boston negotiations are expected to be watched closely around the stateand could serve as a barometer of any lingering union resentment of the new law, which unions aggressively fought.

The flare-up is the second in Boston since the state announced last month its intention to identify 35 schools across Massachusetts, 12 of them in Boston, as underperforming.

Hours after the state’s announcement, Johnson held a press conference, saying she would force teachers at about half those city schools to reapply for their jobs, a move immediately criticized by Stutman, who accused Johnson of trying to “evict’’ hardworking teachers from their jobs.

“Unions are very angry, and they want to kick the nearest shin, the School Committee’s or the superintendent’s,’’ said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. “We will see this in a lot of places.’’

Among Johnson’s proposals, which are considered drafts because negotiations are just beginning: not paying teachers for additional time when extending the school day by up to an hour; requiring 50 hours of additional teacher training without pay; nullifying layoff and seniority provisions; and tying annual pay raises to job performance.

Another proposal seeks to increase class sizes for programs that teach fluency in English, beyond limits set in the teachers’ contract.

“She has dug herself a hole with membership, and she will be hard pressed to get out of that hole,’’ Stutman said.

One request, however, calls for an additional $6,000 a year for a new job category called instructional leader, a teacher who would work a 210-day year helping to improve teaching in underperforming schools.

Yesterday, Johnson emphasized she wants to work collaboratively with teachers on the changes. She pointed out that about 100 parents, teachers, administrators, School Committee members, students, and state education officials came together Saturday to start developing turnaround plans for each of the 12 schools.

“We are asking people to commit to do whatever it takes to give students the best education we can,’’ Johnson said. “We need to expand time and give students additional opportunities. We want to work in partnerships with teachers. We can’t be successful without a partnership.’’

Boston is hoping to receive federal grants of up to $500,000 annually for each school to help finance some of the changes through a program established by the Obama administration to turn around failing schools. It is the only additional money the district is planning for its underperforming schools.

By contrast, the district’s previous school-turnaround program, which Johnson dismantled last school year amid budget cutting, gave each underperforming school about an additional $1.2 million, covering such things as compensating teachers for an extended school day. Johnson said the program, which she inherited, had mixed results.

Boston is working at a faster pace than other districts on fixing underperforming schools, taking advantage of a provision in the new law that allows for an expedited process for districts that already had improvement efforts underway. Johnson had slated 10 of the 12 underperforming schools for dramatic turnarounds last fall.

She has told the School Committee that she hopes to have the plans ready, including union consent, by the end of next month or early June.

Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, cautioned against using Boston as a litmus test for the new law.

“This is the first inning of a nine-inning game,’’ Scott said. “We are still learning about this process. We should not make final judgments about how this is working based on one district. . . . The bottom line here is getting these schools to another place.’