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Dozens of Framingham teachers picket outside high school as negotiations begin again in the New Year

Posted by Jaclyn Reiss  January 24, 2013 03:00 PM

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Jaclyn Reiss for Boston.com

Dozens of teachers waved signs supporting a fair union contract with the town this morning, as students carpooling to school honked and waved in support. The teachers stood out in frigid temperatures this morning before the union and the town entered another round of mediation today.

Clad in hats, gloves, and down winter coats, dozens of Framingham teachers picketed outside Framingham High School in freezing-cold temperatures this morning to demonstrate exasperation with the lack of a union contract with the town.

"Our contract negotiations are not going well," said Rosemary Jebari, a Framingham High teacher, sporting a nose red from bone-chilling morning temperatures in the single-digits. "We just have not been making any progress."

The contract between the Framingham Teachers Association, which is the local teacher’s union, and the town expired on Aug. 31 last year. Educators have been fighting to get a cost of living increase on par with inflation – which they did not receive in the last contract – as well as language in the agreement that clearly defines the teaching work day. The teachers are also hoping to make limited class sizes a priority.

However, while teachers are advocating for these three main points to be addressed in the upcoming contract, Framingham officials are saying the town might not be able to afford a substantial cost of living adjustment.

“We have the utmost respect for what our teachers do, but we are restricted,” said David Miles, chairman of the Framingham School Committee. “We are a town department. We only have so much money.”

Sam Miskin, president of the union, said the picket had a fairly high turnout. He bounced on the balls of his feet, trying to stay warm, as he passed out posters reading "Support Framingham Teachers" and "Fair contract for teachers = good schools for kids."

He said the picket was strategically planned to show support for the teachers as the union and the town continued negotiations with a mediator today for the first time in the New Year.

“It’s been a frustrating experience so far,” Miskin said. “We’re certainly hoping to have a resolution soon."

Although the contracts between the union and the town usually last three years, the two parties arranged a one-year agreement last year because the down economy and budget woes put the town in a tight financial spot, officials said.

“We decided on a one-year contract because the town was worried about fiscal issues, with both the economy and a loss of tax base,” said Christopher Martell, a Framingham Teachers Association member and a history teacher at Framingham High. “But we’re really being pinched. We’re not even asking for a raise. We’re not asking for an amazing cost of living adjustment - just something to help pay our bills.”

“Last year’s contract was essentially just concessions by teachers,” said Miskin, who has taught math at Framingham High for seven years. “We had a zero percent cost of living adjustment, which impacted every teacher in the district, and then less-experienced teachers had their step-raises [to full teaching salaries] frozen for a half year.”

However, Miles said that last year’s policy was mutually decided upon.
“Both sides agreed that rather than the teachers accepting a cost of living adjustment, that money could be better and more effectively spent elsewhere,” he said.

As negotiations have stalled, teachers say they are growing restless for a contract, and town officials are pledging that they will try to reach a timely agreement.

Miles, who has served on the School Committee for 11 years, said it is not unusual for teacher contracts to be negotiated past the former agreement’s expiration.

“People were hoping that it would be wrapped up by now, but it hasn’t,” Miles said, noting that this year’s negotiations might be taking longer than usual because the two sides agreed to bring in a mediator. “With negotiations, there would be a proposal, then a counter-proposal, and back and forth. With mediation, there is the opportunity for things not to be finalized because you can pull them back.”

However, Miles noted that there were certain aspects that need to be considered.

“Teacher salaries are 75 to 80 percent of the school budget,” he said. “That doesn’t leave too much to take care of everything else. We have to be careful about that balance,” he said.

Framingham Superintendent Stacy Scott said "the town is very eager to work a mutually agreeable contract.

“We remain optimistic that we will come to an agreement on points, yet, there are lots of details we’re still working on,” Scott said.

Of those details, Scott said that the School Committee has clear policy language relating to the educators’ work day and class sizes, which is something the teachers are pushing for in their own contract.

“We obviously don’t want class sizes beyond our own policy, but we feel that class size is appropriately managed in our policy at this time,” Scott said, adding that there are “relatively few” classes that are over capacity as designated by the School Committee.

Scott did note that certain classes, like high school history, are surpassing the recommended limit. However, he said that the district is looking into adding more faculty in the future to help alleviate the problem.

“We have plans going into next year permitting us to do adjustments in staffing to make sure all classes are at the appropriate class size, as long as we can afford it,” Scott said.

Scott also said that although issuing a cost of living increase would depend on the town’s revenue projections, he noted that he doesn’t “think that’s an item that there’s great disagreement on.”

And as the teachers face bitter temperatures in the single digits Thursday morning to picket their opinions, one thing remains clear.

“We love this town, and that’s why we choose to work in Framingham,” Martell said. “But we feel we need to be supported on the School Committee’s end.”

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Jaclyn Reiss for Boston.com

Marta Coscia and Laura Modic, both Framingham High School teachers, show their support for a fair union contract.

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Follow us on Twitter: @yourframingham, @jaclynreiss

Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jaclyn.reiss@globe.com

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