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031914i CEA contract bThe School Committee ratified a contract Tuesday giving raises to teachers and staff, who have been working without a new contract since September 2012, and protecting their time for extra responsibilities.

Then it heard the pleas of staff, mostly from the high school, to prevent worker cuts proposed in the superintendent’s budget they felt would have “devastating” effects on their ability to support students.

The contract vote was unanimous (with member Fred Fantini absent while on a trip with students to China); the Cambridge Education Association passed it last week, 646-59. Committee member Patty Nolan, speaking on behalf of Fantini – who shared negotiating responsibilities with her and with former member Marc McGovern in the previous term – called the agreement a “very fair and generous package in exchange for the extraordinary work that our teachers put in.”

The contract has much in common with the one voted down by CEA membership last June, with the notable exception that there is no extra hour proposed for the school day. The agreement covers the four years from September 2012 through August 2016, with retroactive adjustments to cover the past 19 months. Staff get an annual 2.5 percent cost of living increase for the first two of the four school years (for the current year, they have an additional retroactive 0.5 percent on top of the 2 percent negotiated for the temporary contract extension in lieu of a contract), a 2 percent increase in fiscal year 2015 and an adjusted-rate 2.4 percent increase in fiscal year 2016 (actually a 4 percent raise, but 1.6 percent of it makes up for a 5 percent increase for employee health care contribution).

That means employees at the top step (based on length of service) with a bachelor’s degree can make $82,000 by fiscal year 2016; ones with a doctorate could make more than $96,000. About one-half of all teachers are at the top pay scale for their education level. Beginning teachers with bachelor’s degrees started this year with $43,000.

The contract also includes increased pay schedules for coaching, visual and performing arts, long unaddressed; health insurance-related changes; and stipend schedules for out-of-school curriculum development and evaluations of fellow teachers. Teachers also won explicit language including them in plans regarding performance measurement, family engagement, facilities and space changes and the establishment of a joint labor-management team to review evaluation processes.

Teachers protest staff cuts

Immediately after the contract ratification, a series of mostly teachers and staff paraded to the microphone to protest staff cuts they had become aware of just five days earlier, hours after their own contract vote.

CEA president Chris Colbath-Hess referred to testimony from clerical staff about the proposed cuts, mostly in the high school, and expressed concern about a proposed reorganization of the Office of Student Services that will eliminate some positions. While praising the proposed budget’s focus on the upper schools, and attention to school climate and inclusive school issues, she noted the budget’s heavy emphasis on professional development for teachers and stressed that she is “hopeful that it will be guided and supported by the recently formed joint labor-management committee. When it comes to sorting out best practices … the ideas and opinions of our educators should be central.”

Terry Gist, the association’s vice president, joined another high school clerk, Berhan Duncan, to speak about their long list of daily responsibilities, with emphasis on their relationships with students and families. “We are the great equalizer for students. We don’t grade them in any way,” Gist said. Teacher after teacher testified about the crucial work the clerks do, such as Cambridge Rindge and Latin School social studies teacher Barbara Weaver, who said their work is much more than “sorting paper and using technology, [they are] the heart of the learning communities for the staff.” The testimonies were met with hearty applause.

Several long-term special education staff spoke passionately against the proposed Office of Student Services staff reorganization, which would eliminating positions they feel are critical to the support of the students, specifically the special education teacher-in-charge – also to strong applause from supporting staff. They were followed by a joint statement from the special education PAC parent co-chairs, however, who strongly supported the staff reorganization and felt it would address many weaknesses in the special education process.

Cuts are also proposed for upper school instructional technology specialists, two of whom joined a science teacher to deliver a statement in opposition signed by 46 teachers and staff members. In the complicated refiguring:

bullet-gray-smallThe four upper schools share campuses with K-5 schools, and each shared campus has had one librarian and one library aide, but now each upper school and each K-5 will have their own full-time librarian – and no library aide.

bullet-gray-smallEach K-5 and upper school have a half-time tech support person and a half-time technology specialist (that is, a technology teacher). With the restructuring, the half-time tech support people will stay, but only the K-5 schools will keep their half-time technology teacher; at the upper schools, the new full-time librarian will perform that role also.

The three upper school staff members were worried about the impact of the changes and the ability of a single person to excel in both library science skills and technology teaching skills.

“In the last two years, I’ve seen a profound change of my classroom as the direct result of the skills that these specialists bring to my classroom,” leading to more engagement and confidence for the kids, Rindge Avenue Upper School teacher David Suchy said. “This is what we dreamed of when we thought about how to change the schools. If this job is cut, we will take a step backwards.”

Relatedly, three representatives of Cambridge School Volunteers asked that the budget include $40,000 for another program that provides direct one-on-one support to students: an expansion from two schools to all five upper schools of their pilot NetPal program matching seventh-graders with an expert in the science, technology, engineering or math industries. It provides mentoring, expands career possibilities and gives real-time experience in use of technology for research and communication, they said.

Many teachers were blindsided by the news of the staff cuts, and felt that they are struggling constantly to keep direct support from being eroded in lieu of “more accountability measures,” one teacher said. Others suggested that they found the timing interesting, coming on the heels of the contract vote.

Timing of the cuts

Acknowledging that staff cuts are never easy, CRLS Principal Damon Smith and Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Victoria Greer later reassured the committee that the new staff structures would provide the same level of student and faculty support, just in different configurations. Each said the changes were a long time coming.

Smith said it has been obvious over the past two years that with technological changes, the roles of the learning communities and career resource center clerks are changing, and Greer pointed to a 2010 West Ed study recommendation and her own work reassessing staff processes and laying the groundwork.

The decision to replace the part-time upper school technical specialist and part-time librarian with a full-time joint librarian/technology teacher has been two years in the making, Chief Information Officer Steve Smith said. After “much discussion,” they ultimately decided “the value of having one full-time person outweighed the potential loss of deep expertise in one area or another” – library science versus a technology specialty.

Given that each of these three staff restructurings has apparently been in development for several months, it is notable that staff were made aware of the changes for the first time last week. Greer explained that Monday and Tuesday of this week she sent out further emails helping to explain the structure and reassure staff.

Greer and the others had to help their staffs quickly to give a clear understanding of her vision, committee member Fran Cronin said, because “Word travels fast around here.”

The committee’s student members, CRLS’ Emily Gray and Lucy Sternbach, ended public comment with Sternbach speaking for both in their summation of the problem:

When really important people are removed from the staff it changes the school morale. There is too much distance between the administration making the decisions and the teachers. If the collaboration could start a little earlier, this might not happen.

Another budget meeting was added for 6 p.m. Tuesday at the School Committee meeting room at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, 459 Broadway.

Next story: Staff cuts aren’t swaying school officials from overall proposed budget changes

This post was updated March 20, 2013, to fix an error in the graphic and better describe the NetPals program.