Sunday, June 16, 2024

Cambridge educators at a protest May 2 outside School Committee offices. (Photo: Banke Oluwole/Cambridge Education Association)

Whether Cambridge’s School Committee and Cambridge Education Association labor union are at an impasse is a major question as they negotiate a new three-year contract for roughly 1,100 teachers, assistant principals, deans and curriculum coordinators that will begin Sept. 1 when the current contract ends Aug. 31.

There have been 21 meetings since contract negotiations began in October, according to an email sent Friday by the committee, which handles negotiations with the CEA on behalf of the district. It was signed by committee chair Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and Superintendent Victoria Greer.

After nearly eight months of negotiations, the CEA declined the committee’s request to file a joint petition with the state’s Department of Labor Relations for a mediator to help devise a contract. The committee filed the petition on its own.

“We believe we have reached an impasse and need the assistance of a neutral mediator to resolve these remaining items,” the committee email said. “We believe that the negotiating teams will benefit from expert and neutral mediation of this process. Requesting a state mediator demonstrates our commitment to continue the collective bargaining process to come to an agreement that is in the best interest of our students and educators.”

CEA president Dan Monahan said the union is calling for the committee to withdraw its petition, stating that if mediation is put in place, all discussion will go through the mediator instead of through direct negotiations.

The CEA will submit an objection to the committee’s petition for mediation if it is not withdrawn, Monahan said.

The committee’s “last, best, and final offer” on Tuesday was premature in that while minor issues have been resolved, not enough time has been spent discussing the major issues of “wages, workloads and the length of the school day,” the union said.

Not face-to-face mediation

The CEA posted on its Facebook page on Wednesday that when the committee makes a “final offer,” the union is not required to accept it or bring it to its members for ratification, but may regard it as “one more package proposal” in the bargaining process.

“Both parties have an obligation to continue bargaining,” and if district negotiators refuse to continue bargaining, they may be “in violation of their duty to bargain and an unfair labor practice charge could be filed,” the CEA said.

Monahan said that it’s not the classic mediation of two people and a mediator at a table. Instead the parties sit in different rooms and the mediator “literally goes from one room to the other,” Monahan said. “It’s not an efficient way to solve problems.”

Gauging a true impasse

The conflict may rest on whether a true impasse exists. According to the current contract, if negotiations have reached an impasse, the parties agree to follow a procedure in state law that after a “reasonable period of negotiation, either party may petition the board for a “determination of the existence of an impasse.”

The board has 10 days to investigate if a true impasse exists; if it finds one, the board will appoint a mediator to assist in the negotiation process.

The CEA could continue negotiating during the summer if team members are available, but even if an agreement is reached, it is unlikely educators will be available to vote, Monahan said.

It is probable that the school year will begin without a contract in place, he said.

Three issues

While the parties have “reached tentative agreement on more than 25 proposals,” according to the committee’s email, three items remain in contention: annual salary increases, increasing student learning time in kindergarten through grade 8 and determining how educators are evaluated.

The district proposed to increase all teachers’ salaries by 2.5 percent in year one of the contract, and 3 percent for the remaining two years, with average teacher salaries projected to increase to $108,562 from $99,834, a three-year rise of more than $9.6 million, per the committee email. 

The salary increases “won’t make salaries comparable to other professions with equivalent education and experience,” and teacher salaries remain low compared with the cost of living in Cambridge, Monahan said.

More teaching time

In terms of instructional time, the district notes that Cambridge has one of the shortest school days in the state, “providing an inadequate amount of time for classroom teaching and learning.” 

The district proposes adding 30 minutes of instructional time daily to elementary and upper school schedules beginning in 2024. For a 180-day school year, the additional 90 hours would total just over two weeks.

The CEA’s position: The committee hasn’t provided adequate information, making it “irresponsible to agree to such a vague proposal with no guarantees for how the time would be used.”

“One of reasons why time is an issue right now is if you add up all the time the district requires for subjects – English-language arts, math, science, art – that’s more time than exists in the school day,” Monahan said. 

The CEA has “many ideas” on how to improve the school experience, and “the bottom line is that there are other ways to improve student performance than just by adding time,” he said.

Under the district’s proposal, teachers would get a pay increase of 7.5 percent for the additional time, lifting the average salary to $116,728 by year three of the contract. The CEA that paying for additional hours is not a true pay raise.

Educator evaluations

In the third issue – determining how educators are evaluated – the committee proposes adopting guidelines provided by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Classroom Teacher Evaluation Rubric, which are used by many districts and “include student outcomes as an indicator in the evaluation of teacher effectiveness.”

Under the current contract, the committee agreed not to include state guidelines in part because the district already uses student learning goals set by educators at the beginning of the year, Monahan said.

 “I don’t understand why the School Committee, who just voted to support the Thrive Act, which gets rid of the MCAS as a high school requirement, is so determined on using [the same test] as part of teacher evaluations,” Monahan said.