Cry the beloved city! Reflections on the Newton teachers strike by Marjorie Arons Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons Barron’s own blog.

The City of Newton’s shameful, illegal, and history-making 11-day teachers strike is over. Finally, Newton’s 12,000 school kids are back in class, where they belong. Those of us who have lived in Newton for a long time are heartbroken that the dispute came down to that illegal action. The turbulence and incivility, the willingness to damage our children, are not what we have a right to expect from our teachers and elected officials.

The self-inflicted lacerations are deep, and it will take time to poultice the infection and heal the open wounds.

Back in the Paleolithic era, when I was a student, Newton High School (there was only one) was one of the top ten high schools in the country. The notion of “the Garden City” was not just about growing green lawns and daffodils. It was about nurturing young minds, bringing youngsters to their full potential. Folks moved to the city just for its public school system.

Many newcomers with kids still come for the same reason. How disheartening the experiences of the past weeks have been. How damaging to the reputation of our beloved city. The full extent of those damages is yet to be measured. The strike is over, but many questions remain, and it’s hard to sort out the winners and losers.

The teachers got a 12.6 percent increase over four years, expanded parental leave, higher pay for paraprofessionals, and more social workers in the elementary schools, a total package of $53 million over four years.  Most of the issues were worked out early in the process. Teachers’ pay was the most challenging issue, and the union held out for an historic 11 days. What they gained in the end was virtually the same as what the School Committee provided in its last offer before the strike. Did this make the NTA winners?

Initially, there was much sympathy for the issues raised by the Newton Teachers Association. But, as the days passed, the union didn’t fare that well in public opinion. Was it really necessary to call in the big guns of the Mass Teachers Association (MTA), with its militant tactics, to further the MTA’s goals of building statewide support for legalizing teacher strikes and lowering MCAS scores necessary for graduation? (Today the legislature shuffled the strike legalization bill off to committee “for study,” which probably means it’s dead for this year.) Adding insult to injury, the performance stridency of the official from the National Education Association was hardly helpful to the tone at the bargaining table.  To what extent did our local teachers permit themselves to be used as pawns in some larger labor union strategy masquerading as concern for Newton students?

As the strike wore on and on and on, the most poignant losers were the kids. Daily the damage grew and grew, especially for special ed, disabled, Metco, ESL students and all their families. Struggling families were sent scurrying for day care and substitute activities for their young ones. Many parents lost income when those were not available. Some parents went to court and tried, unsuccessfully, to get the teachers to return to the classrooms to protect the students while the bargaining continued.

The growing frustration spawned a class action lawsuit against the union. For the parties at the bargaining table, the 4-year contract may now be a wrap. But, for those wounded by the obduracy of the warring parties, the injuries endure, and the motion seeking compensatory (and possibly punitive) damages is still out there.

Between 1100 and 1200 children, from some 600 families, have already been moved to private schools due to NPS handling of COVID.  Now there are new rumblings about how the strike has motivated other parents to look for private school alternatives. I have also heard that there is fresh interest in creating a public charter school here. If the school population shrinks measurably again, this could necessitate the closing of one or more of the smaller elementary schools. Will our new school superintendent, who started her job with such great promise, have to deal with these additional hits? And will the teachers resent her though she kept her eyes on what was important educationally and the fiscal decisions were not hers to make.

Mayor Ruthanne Fuller certainly didn’t fare well in this process. People keep asking why she didn’t come to the bargaining table until the 11th hour, and then just once?  Fuller says she was working closely with the superintendent and the school committee throughout the nightmarish process, and NSC chair Chris Brezski and others confirm that. People close to the bargaining praise her stand-up role, despite being vilified, and her willingness to add more money as it became available throughout the nearly 17-month process. But people’s sense of her lack of transparency, using shifting and contradictory numbers dating back to the defeat of the operating override she advocated last spring, is an issue. The fallout for Fuller may not be known until the fall of 2025 if she runs for reelection.

Frustration grew among all the parties. The negative rhetoric coming out of union leaders after agreement was reached was gratuitous and quite disheartening. Their slowness to move boldly toward reconciliation signals the prospects for more ill will going forward.

It shouldn’t have taken the Newton Teachers Association and the School Committee 16 fruitless months to find ways to meet legitimate needs of the school system. It definitely should should not have taken an historically long and illegal strike to reach an agreement. Not in Newton.

Pity the students who had been locked out by COVID and now found themselves locked out again. Pity the members of the School Committee, increasingly reviled by the union but performing this public service because they care about Newton’s kids. Pity the taxpayers who must pick up the direct and indirect costs of the strike; even if the Judge permits some of the fines for the illegal strike to be paid to the City instead of the state, there is still a significant shortfall. And, yes, pity the talented front-line teachers, top professionals entrusted with the care and development of our most precious resource, who did deserve more money and greater respect from the larger community, a place where many of them cannot even afford to live – and thereby become a more integral part of the city’s fabric.

When things are working well, we all benefit from the success of their efforts. It’s hard not to think that, in Newton, in this round, all parties have lost. It is a very sad day.