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Teachers union, Johnson reach stalemate on plan

Can’t agree on issue of longer school day

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / May 14, 2010

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The Boston Teachers Union and School Superintendent Carol R. Johnson have reached stalemate over her plan to extend the school day and make other changes at 12 underperforming schools, pushing the monthlong dispute into the hands of an arbitrator.

The two sides met twice, for a total of 13 hours, since Johnson sent her proposal to union leaders April 10. A new state law allows superintendents to expedite negotiations so they can move quickly to turn around schools the state has designated as underperforming.

Negotiations over Johnson’s more than one dozen proposals broke down Wednesday after a five-hour session. Union leaders, who lambasted the superintendent’s proposals last month, submitted a counterproposal that included such items as increasing staffing at underperforming schools.

One of the biggest sticking points in negotiations was Johnson’s proposal to lengthen the school day by up to an hour without paying teachers for the extra time.

Union officials say they support a longer day, but insist on additional compensation, which teachers at the city’s other schools with extended days receive. The proposal would affect hundreds of teachers, classroom aides, and other union members.

Richard Stutman, the union’s president, accused Johnson’s team of lawyers of refusing to negotiate in good faith, only occasionally tweaking their proposal.

“They were unprepared, and they were nonresponsive,’’ Stutman said.

Matthew Wilder, a School Department spokesman, rejected Stutman’s assertion.

“We are looking to put a plan in place that serves the best needs of students,’’ Wilder said. “We are always looking for ways to work closely and efficiently with the teachers union.’’

Educators across the state have been carefully watching the Boston negotiations, the first under the new law. Unions, which aggressively opposed the new law in legislative debate, persuaded many lawmakers to support a provision that would allow unions to have some say in making changes at the underperforming schools and established an appeals process if negotiations broke down.

But some administrators and policy makers questioned whether the provision could sabotage overhaul efforts.

Under the new law, the dispute will now head to a joint resolution committee, which will include a Boston teachers union representative, a School Committee designee, and an arbitrator mutually agreed upon. The committee will have until the end of this month to make a decision.

If stalemate continues, the dispute will be settled by Mitchell Chester, the state commissioner for elementary and secondary education.

The tenor of the negotiations was tense from the start. Johnson had her proposals delivered to Stutman’s home last month, and he derided the proposals as “ugly’’ and “insulting’’ in a letter two days later to union members. He characterized them as budget-cutting measures rather than innovative ideas to transform schools.

The proposals, which Johnson’s team considered drafts at the time and would have only applied to underperforming schools, would have required teachers there to receive an additional 50 hours of training without extra pay, nullified layoff and seniority provisions, and tied annual pay raises to job performance.

Another proposal would have increased class sizes for programs that teach students to be fluent in English, beyond limits set in the teachers contract.

Also, in an effort to attract talented teachers to these schools, the superintendent wanted some teachers to become instructional leaders, who would work on overhaul efforts and receive a pay increase of approximately $6,000.

The union’s proposals called for creating a reading intervention program at underperforming schools and hiring a social worker, an attendance officer, a behavioral specialist, and an academic coach for each underperforming schools. Stutman said Johnson’s team rejected each one without explanation.

“Our proposal makes a lot more educational sense than theirs does,’’ Stutman said.

Wilder declined to discuss the differences between the two sides on the proposals.

“We feel confident that a decision can be made in time for us to put our plans in place for the fall,’’ Wilder said.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.

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