Why Can’t The Boston Teachers Get A New Contract?

Last week, I was talking with a business agent for a large public sector union which represents thousands of employees in the City of Boston. When our conversation turned to city negotiations, I asked why the Boston teachers couldn’t get a new contract, since the mayor had already settled with the firefighters and police officers (represented by the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association with the expert legal guidance of my colleague Susan Horwitz). He said that it had something to do with the teachers’ union protecting the jobs of 100 teachers who were in some kind of “rubber room.” Since I knew the “rubber room” refers to a place where New York City dumped lots of teachers awaiting disciplinary hearings for accusations of serious misconduct, I could only conclude that the union must be trying to protect problem teachers. Wanting to find out what is really going on, through a mutual friend, I went straight to the source. Below is a detailed explanation from Richard Stutman, President of the Boston Teachers Union. The bottom line is: the City wants to be able to get rid of many, perhaps 100, perfectly good teachers, many of whom have been rated as not just adequate, but exceptional teachers. Instead, they would rather hire those who are younger, cheaper, and less experienced. All unions, union members, and people who care about maintaining a system where qualified professionals can make a career in public service without fear of being cast aside for no reason, need to support the BTU’s fight for justice for all of its members. Below is a detailed explanation from President Stutman:

-Alan Shapiro

Each year in the Boston Public Schools we have school closings, programmatic readjustments (e.g., a school needs one fewer English Language Arts teacher, two more math teachers, and so on), a school (or two or three) converting to “Turnaround” status (a provision under state law which allows (in some cases, mandates) large staff turnover at a school, regardless of individual teacher competence), or other events, all of which ‘excess’ or push out a teacher or a group of teachers and thrust them into the land of the unassigned. This year we had one school closing, two schools forced into Turnaround status, and another school that underwent a status change (Level 5 to Level 5+) – altogether 150 teachers excessed from these four schools alone. At different changes in a school’s status, no less than 50% of the staff have to leave the school; at yearly intervals staff turnovers of up to 100% can occur. What does this mean?

Simply, because of these school status changes, we have perhaps hundreds of people forced to vacate schools each year – not because of individual performance or anything related to individual conduct or discipline – but because the school is undergoing a transformation ordered by the state or federal government.

So these teachers get ‘excessed’ and in a few cases, schools can take some of them back, either after or without an application process. In the vast majority of cases, those excessed become unassigned teachers looking for a permanent placement. This year there are 350 excessed teachers currently without an assignment. Regardless of how they got into this status, they are, as measured on the performance scale , similar to all other teachers in the system – no better, no worse.

A little background on the current group of 350 unassigned teachers. They were noticed in February and have from February to September to apply for a position. Most diligently apply for placement where there is a suitable position in their field.

Some have no place to apply. They may, for example, be in an ‘exotic’ field, teaching a subject that is not widely taught. Or they may teach a not-so-exotic field, but in a grade level where that subject is not needed. While most of the 350 will predictably find a position by September, some will not, and they’ll become “SPC’s” or people who will be assigned to a “Suitable Professional Capacity” on the first day of school.

People assigned to an SPC role get full pay and benefits and remain eligible to seek and accept any posting that opens up in the school system. While unassigned to a ‘real’ position, they work in a school in a variety of capacities: as a second teacher, teacher’s helper, paraprofessional, small group instructor, or in a similar support role. This year there are around 45 SPC’s. Next year, given the inevitable whittling down of the 350 unassigned now, there will be another 50 to 75 SPC’s (but we cannot be sure how many) added to the group of current 45 SPC’s. Let’s assume there will be 100 or so SPC’s next year, as some of the current SPC’s will undoubtedly resign, retire, or naturally find a position.

Here, then, is the issue:

Given the above, there is a steady, though fluctuating, core of 50 to 100 SPC’s, who remain in that status each year, costing the district annually $5 to $10M. This year, 2/3 of these teachers have been rated proficient or exemplary. Some have been SPC’s for a few years, some for a year. To a person, they want to get out of the status, obtain a ‘real’ position, and get on with their careers. But they are not guaranteed placement as principals retain the right to say ‘no’ to any particular applicant.

Some of the SPC’s apply to many schools looking for virtually anything, others are more selective. Unless an SPC finds a school and is accepted there, s/he remains in this status without a time limit.

Why aren’t these folks laid off? Under the BTU contract each SPC is guaranteed this status (full pay and benefits) for years without limit. This guarantee is seniority-based and means that the SPC can continue in the status provided there is a person in the same subject area who is junior to the SPC, even if that junior person has a ‘real’ position. There is no time limit.

Under the state law, the SPC has a right, as well, to continue in the same status – notwithstanding the provisions of the BTU contract — provided a non-permanent or provisional employee is working in that subject area. This adds to their protection.

Bottom line: the SPC has a right to stay in that position indefinitely, even without a real spot to claim.

From our point of view, these SPCs should be working in productive, real positions. Each has been trained and vetted, each has been rigorously evaluated under a new state Performance Evaluation system that the district has agreed to, and each is in his/her predicament through no fault of his/her own. Each has undergone anywhere from 30 to hundreds of hours of yearly Professional Development. None of those in this capacity are there as a result of any disciplinary proceeding. This is no rubber room.

(There are teachers awaiting disciplinary proceedings, and this small group is sent home to await the disciplinary process. None of these is an SPC.)

From the school district’s point of view, a principal should have the right to hire any person s/he chooses and these excessed teachers (SPC’s) are never forced into a school. The normal teaching turnover is approximately 500 teaching positions per year. The existence of SPC’s adds another 50 to 100 positions that have to be filled. This year the department has hired 600 new teachers.

We’d like to see the district put the SPC’s to work at their full capacity as teachers in the fields in which they are fully trained and qualified, and save anywhere from $5-10M per year. The school district, hiding behind the ideology of “not-forcing-a-person-into-a-position,” has the cash to withstand the cost of paying the unnecessary $5-$10M in yearly costs. We’d like to see the money used elsewhere.

Final point, in a circular twist to all of this – if the school department could redistribute the $5 to $10M that is spent on this issue, it would allow schools to add back teaching positions and cut back on the programmatic excessing that helps create the SPC problem in the first place.

In negotiations, we seek to keep the SPC’s employed in productive capacity until a ‘real’ vacancy opens up. The school district wishes to put a time limit on each SPC’s status and have us waive their contractual and statutory rights to employment. If that were to happen, eventually, dozens or even hundreds of fully qualified, experienced teachers would end up unemployed, while the school district hires new, generally inexperienced, and much cheaper teachers (starting teachers make about 35% less than those at the top of the salary schedule) to replace them.

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