By Chad Jewett Staff Writer
C H I C O P E E – E a r l y attempts at contract negotiations between the School Committee and the Chicopee Education Association, which represents Chicopee public school teachers, have reached a point where state outside mediation is being sought.
“We had about seven negotiating sessions with the teacher’s unit [of the Chicopee Education Association],” said Chicopee Superintendent of Schools Richard W. Rege. Jr., “and, quite frankly, it got to the point of impasse, and there started to be some animosity creeping in. We agreed to seek mediation to tamper down the emotions.”
“We went to negotiation two years ago and came to an agreement in about three mediation sessions,” added Rege, referring to the last round of contract talks. “I’m hopeful this mediator will move things along in a positive vein.”
“It’s disheartening to feel as though we’re being met with the mentality that we’re not in this together,” said CEA Vice President Kathy Abood, who added that the CEA attempted to negotiate contracts for all units represented by the association, a show of unity amongst Chicopee school employees.
“We’ve been speaking to parents and saying, ‘This is three years in our career, but this is also three years for students that they don’t get back,’” she said, referring to the upcoming three-year teaching contracts at the heart of these negotiations. “I think we owe it to them to make those years as good as we can. We all want what’s best for the kids. Our motto in Chicopee is ‘Students First.’ We’re fighting for our working conditions, but our working conditions are the students’ learning environments.”
According to Superintendent Rege, the main sticking point is monetary, with teachers calling for pay raises and increased arts, music and physical education on the one side, and Chicopee’s challenging budgetary status on the other. This is all exacerbated by the uncertainty surrounding Governor Charlie Baker’s recent budget proposal for the coming fiscal year. As noted by Supt. Rege, the Massachusetts state legislature generally increases spending on things like Chapter 70 – i.e., state aid to public schools in the commonwealth – compared to Baker’s proposals, but those increases are no sure thing.
“One of the big challenges is obviously money,” Rege said. “It too often comes down to money. We have no idea yet what the legislature is apt to do with the governor’s budget. We’re not sure how much money [they’ll add]. They are apparently considering Chapter 70 reformulations that would equal sizable money to Massachusetts schools, but obviously that will depend on state revenue. If there’s going to be more money to help us, it will have to come from the state.”
“Money. It is only about money,” reads a statement from Chicopee Education Association President Charles Clark. “From the Chicopee School Committee’s first one-year offer in October to the rejection of release time for the association president last week, it has always been about money. It is not about kids or their parents or about their teachers. It is about not having enough money and an unwillingness to do what is necessary to improve education in the city.”
Clark’s statement went on to describe an initial one-year offer delivered by the School Committee that he says offered no raises and no language changes, and which the School Committee defended by citing a lack of funds. Clark says the contract did feature “a re-opener clause to discuss salary once the state budget was finalized.” According to the CEA president, the initial offer was rejected by all four chairs of the association. Following a second offer that Clark says “increased time at work, reduced benefits, and [included] a financial offer that would mean less money for 60 percent of teachers” the CEA produced its own proposal, marked by what Clark called “student-centered reforms” and language addressing poverty in Chicopee, which was rejected by the School Committee. According to Clark, an additional five bargaining sessions eventually yielded what he describes as a slightly-altered version of the School Committee’s initial one-year offer, creating an impasse in the fourmonth negotiation process that led to current calls for mediation.
Clark went on to describe a volatile, even hostile environment in Chicopee’s three high schools, with both Chicopee High School and Chicopee Comp falling in the lowest 10th percentile of Massachusetts public schools, and Chicopee Academy currently experiencing “the highest suspension and arrest rate of any high school in Massachusetts.”
“Clearly, this is not okay,” Clark added. “Students are not demonstrating adequate annual progress, staff are unsafe and morale is low. Change is needed.”
“With city revenues rising and the amount going to city public schools declining each year, Chicopee has an unsustainable model and is on a clear path to failure,” he said, warning that Chicopee might potentially face a situation in which city schools could be taken over by a private entity.
In January, the School Committee announced a budget freeze for Fiscal Year 2017, a move characterized as a precautionary measure by Supt. Rege, who said that the freeze was designed to prevent emergency measures like the nearly 100 layoff notices that were sent out to due to budget shortages at the end of the 2015-16 school year. The layoffs were ultimately recalled following an emergency infusion of money from the City Council, a measure that the superintendent says cannot be repeated.
“We agree teachers deserve more money,” Rege said. “The disputable issue is whether we have the capacity to give them what they’re asking for. And right now we don’t have the capacity. That’s one of the issues.”
The superintendent cited rising health insurance costs as an especially challenging “Achilles’ heel” in the negotiation process.
“Additionally there is some language they would like in the contract that management feels doesn’t belong in an employee contract and that, in fact, in looking at other contracts around the area, isn’t present,” said Rege. “And as superintendent I have already acted on some of their requests outside of the contract because they were fair and the right thing to do. But to memorialize this in the contract is not something that I can agree to.”
“The Chicopee School Committee lacks vision to see beyond their declining budget,” reads the statement from Clark. “Education costs a great deal of money, but it is not all about money. Education is about time and how that time is used. Time in safe, healthy buildings where children can take safe risks, develop, acquire, and test their abilities. Time to grow. Time for teachers to work collaboratively with autonomy to adapt instruction to their student’s diverse needs, not time to follow scripted instruction and fear reprimand or retaliation if they do not.”
“The CEA believes its members, our students, their parents, and the voters of Chicopee deserve a public school system that is sustainable,” the statement said in closing. “Not a system restricted by declining revenues. Chicopee needs to change. If the school leadership is unwilling to recognize that elementary reality, maybe it is time for a change in school leadership.”
“We work in a city with a lot of hard-working folks, and we want what’s best for their kids,” said Abood.
According to the organization’s website, “The Chicopee Education Association proudly represents units A, B, D, and E. We have 1,100 members across our four bargaining units which include: teachers, guidance counselors, speech/occupational/physical therapists, paraprofessionals, secretaries, and other professionals.”
Mediation will begin April 12. The Chicopee Register reached out to Supt. Rege for additional comment following the Chicopee Education Association’s written statement, but Rege declined to comment further.