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Menino, teachers union grow further apart

Charter schools bring latest rift

Mayor Thomas M. Menino called union stances frustrating. Mayor Thomas M. Menino called union stances frustrating.
By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / July 22, 2009

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When Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston announced his support of charter schools last month after years of opposition, he lauded their ability to attract and retain top-notch teachers, tailor lessons to students’ needs, and create flexible workplace rules.

The most pressing cause of his conversion, however, went unmentioned: his growing frustration with the Boston Teachers Union, which over the last few months had scuttled or stalled one key initiative after another, from education overhaul efforts to cost-saving measures.

For years, the union had successfully prevailed upon the mayor to resist charter schools, union-free institutions that divert money away from other public schools, but he was no longer willing to abide by their wishes.

“It’s their way or the highway; I get very frustrated by that,’’ Menino said yesterday, sitting on a marble staircase at the State House, after testifying on a bill he proposed that would enable school districts to create their own charter schools and control the state aid that goes to them. “I can’t continue to get stymied as I try to improve Boston schools.’’

Richard Stutman, the Teachers Union’s president, chalks up the mayor’s comments to politics as Menino tries to fend off three competitors for his seat this fall. Stutman says that the union has worked with the city to resolve disputes and that filing grievances and going to arbitration is simply part of the process.

“He’s running for an election,’’ Stutman said. “He’s looking for a scapegoat that’s not there.’’

Teachers, a longtime component of the Democratic political machine, are increasingly finding themselves at odds with education changes proposed by party leaders nationally and locally, including President Obama, Governor Deval Patrick, and Menino. All are pushing for creation of more charter schools, which often operate without unions or with scaled-back contract provisions. This, supporters say, spurs cutting-edge teaching techniques that can boost student achievement.

The party’s shift has elicited feelings of betrayal among teachers, who feel that too much blame is placed on them and that political leaders are failing to take responsibility for not providing funding and other resources teachers say are necessary to turn around schools.

“It’s not as if teachers are sitting in school saying, ‘We want our kids to fail,’ ’’ said Paul Toner, vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union, who taught in the Cambridge schools.

Many teachers were among those in a packed crowd at yesterday’s legislative hearing. They laughed when Menino told the Education Committee, “I am not against workers unionizing; I think my track record shows that.’’

Indeed, shortly after becoming mayor in 1993, Menino worked with leaders of the Teachers Union to create pilot schools, which they hoped would help Boston compete against charter schools. Like the charter schools, pilot schools provide principals with greater flexibility in areas such as hiring staff, choosing curriculum, and setting school hours. Pilot schools, however, employ union teachers who agree to fewer restrictions in their contract than other district teachers.

But the relationship between the mayor and the union has grown increasingly turbulent this decade. In 2005, Menino threatened to abandon his opposition to charter schools when the union and the mayorally appointed School Committee hit a stalemate on a new contract. One major point of contention was expanding the number of pilot schools and paying overtime for teachers at those schools.

They ultimately reached a compromise: The union agreed to allow seven new pilot schools to open by 2009, while the committee agreed to pay the teachers some over time. But, since then, the mayor has accused Stutman of thwarting efforts to open more pilots by turning faculties against them. At least seven times, faculties have rejected proposals to convert schools to pilots, including a no vote last month at Everett Elementary School.

Stutman has denied that he hindered pilot school expansion.

“I don’t have super powers,’’ he said. “People are making up their own minds. To say it is me doesn’t give staff enough respect.’’

He also contends the goal of seven new pilots schools has been met, an assertion disputed by city officials and pilot supporters because the union is including at least one school that is merely expanding grades and English High School, which is part of a pilot school program run by the state.

Other tensions erupted this year when the union balked at a request made by Menino for a one-year salary freeze to avert hundreds of layoffs of city employees. While several unions jumped on board, leaders of the Boston Teachers Union, the city largest union, did not schedule a vote.

The two parties have also gone to arbitration over expansion of Advanced Placement courses, which Menino has repeatedly pointed to as a frustrating example of the union’s unwillingness to embrace change that could help students improve. The dispute involves a proposal to give $100 in merit pay to teachers at the O’Bryant High School, whose students score well on Advanced Placement exams, Stutman said. The union opposes this provision, saying it would prefer the money to be spent on classroom supplies or professional developments.

Menino said it was with much thought that he switched his support to charter schools. He is hoping it will make the city eligible for more federal stimulus dollars, under an Obama administration policy encouraging the expansion of charter schools.

But the mayor’s support for charter schools remains tepid, mainly because they could divert money away from mainstream schools. Because state aid is allocated on a per-student basis, students who leave a public school to attend a charter school take with them several thousands of dollars in aid, a loss that could amount to about $50 million this coming school year for the city’s school system.

“The mayor was driven into the arms of charters by the union,’’ said Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, which has provided funding for pilot schools.

“History will record this as a huge miscalculation on their part.’’

Correction: Because of an editing error, former Boston Public Schools superintendent Michael Contompasis was misidentified in a photo with a story on yesterday’s Page One about Mayor Thomas M. Menino and the teachers’ union.