Sunday, June 16, 2024

Cambridge educators pause – during a pause in the rain – during a protest Tuesday outside School Committee offices. (Photo: Banke Oluwole/Cambridge Education Association)

A classic early May afternoon – damp, chilly, and overcast – didn’t deter the more than 300 educators who gathered outside the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School on Tuesday to support the Cambridge Education Association’s positions during contract talks with the Cambridge Public Schools district. The School Committee was holding its first May meeting just inside.

The negotiations between the district and union for a new contract appear to be the classic face-off across a table, but this time the CEA is drawing in the City of Cambridge as a third player, making the case that the city’s strong financials should boost compensation for school staff. 

The union and district have been at the negotiating table more than 16 times since October to discuss a three-year contract for employee in units A and B (teachers and administrators) to begin Sept. 1, when the current contract ends.

The union is pushing for the School Committee to agree to “fair compensation and reasonable workloads for our educators,” according to a statement by union president Dan Monahan. The union has presented its arguments on a website.

The CEA said that to “attract and retain high-quality educators,” the district must offer compensation that is in “alignment with other professional knowledge workers in our region and ensure reasonable workloads.” The union notes that professional knowledge workers with “similar education levels are paid roughly 20 percent more.” 

A sign is prepared for use during Tuesday’s educator protest. (Photo: Banke Oluwole/Cambridge Education Association)

“A good way to frame it is that is teacher pay penalty – if you become a teacher you’ll make less money that someone with equivalent experience and education,” Monahan said.

Managing educator workload is also a high priority, Monahan said.

“Educators are overworked right now. Many are working 15-hour days, and weekends,” Monahan said, calling the pace unsustainable. “I’m seeing many more people who are taking medical leaves for stress and anxiety than I’ve ever seen before.” 

The union notes that the district loses roughly 13 percent of its educators every year, including many educators of color, and that educators are “overworked and suffering from burnout” and are “historically underpaid in both Massachusetts and nationally.”

Educators are also contending with the effects of the Covid pandemic and the “urgent need to address systemic racism embedded in society,” per a statement by the union leadership and bargaining team. 

District point of view

Superintendent Victoria Greer celebrated teachers on Tuesday. In a video, she thanked educators for their commitment, compassion and dedication to students. “Your advocacy for our students is a constant, and you meet every challenge with fortitude and grace,” Greer said. “I am proud of you and the work that you do each and every day for our students and families.”

The district “values our educators tremendously” and is committed to ensuring they are “among the highest paid in the state” said Sujata Wycoff, the district’s director of communications, in an emailed statement on behalf of the School Committee and the district.

She provided a district recruitment flyer that touts the district’s overall compensation package, highlighting that its average teacher salary of $99,834 is more than 13 percent higher than the state’s average.

The district reiterated that it continues to negotiate in good faith to find “common ground in service of our students” as negotiations continue behind closed doors.

“Part of problem is that it takes a long time to do this work, and they’re not coming back with proposals that will be acceptable to our members,” Monahan said. “We’ve made progress about the edges, but are still far apart on the fundamental issues.”

The pressure is on to complete a tentative agreement by the end of May to allow union members time to review and ratify the contract before the last day of school, June 22. Union members can’t ratify the contract during the summer break, and would return to school in the fall without a contract, Monahan said.

City responsibilities and ripple effect

To pay educators at similar rates of compensation as other professionals with similar credentials, the CEA built a case for the city to provide additional funds to the district. Cambridge has the financial resources to be “fairly compensating educators and ensuring workloads that will allow our educators to be their best for our scholars,” the union said.

The CEA proposes raising educator compensation in the three-year contract by $6 million for 2023-2024 and 2024-2025, and by $12 million for 2025-2026.

The union points out on its website that Cambridge is in a strong financial position, including having AAA bond ratings from the three mayor credit rating agencies. It also cites the city’s low residential and commercial property tax levy, meaning that Cambridge does not collect all the property taxes it could under state law: In the fiscal year 2023, the city levied almost $531 million in property taxes, while the state set the maximum amount at $732 million, so the city’s “underlevy” was roughly $201 million.

The union supports its case by referring to the low percentage of general fund that is used for education compared with other municipalities. In Cambridge, its 29 percent of the overall budget; nearby communities range from Somerville’s 31 percent to Newton’s 53 percent.

The Center for Education Policy and Practice at the Massachusetts Teachers Association, a statewide union, offers other possible funding sources, including an estimated annual increase in the state’s Chapter 70 aid to the city, the possibility of an increase in the city’s non-property taxes (such as auto excise taxes, fees and fines), and advocates using a portion of the city’s free cash – money “left over” in the city’s coffers due to higher income or lower expenses – to pay for increased teacher and administrator compensation.

An unusual trigger

As the union negotiates for compensation increases in this contract, an unusual issue comes into play. 

The city and School Committee have a number of contracts with unions that contain a “general across-the-board base wage increase” clause, Monahan said.

“All our union contracts have reopener language,” city spokesperson Lee Gianetti said Thursday. If the city, including Cambridge Public Schools, settles a cost-of-living base wage increase with one bargaining unit but agrees to a larger cost-of-living increase with another bargaining unit, the city needs to reopen contract discussions for the limited purpose of discussing base wages, Gianetti said.

There are ways to raise compensation without triggering this clause and multiple union contract negotiations. Some contracts provide training stipends or a clothing allowance – or, in the case of district educators, a $450 instructional materials reimbursement.

The union has proposed tying increased compensation to a “top step” approach in which each academic year is considered a “step” and educator salaries would increase after 10 years (or steps) of service, rewarding educators who stay with the district. 

The district has not responded to this approach, Monahan said.