Gateway lawsuit dismissed as teachers ask for contract

Image Courtesy: The Westfield News

HUNTINGTON, Mass. (THE WESTFIELD NEWS) – About 40 Gateway Regional teachers wearing red in solidarity packed the School Committee meeting on Wednesday in support of negotiations for a contract that have been ongoing since November of 2014.

Gateway Teachers Association president James Duggan spoke at the start of the meeting, asking the School Committee to remember the educators involved when making a decision.

“Teachers are the most important asset,” Duggan said. “We’ve been bargaining in good faith for over a year.”

He added that teachers are discouraged, and negotiations are difficult due to the mediation that puts the School Committee in one room, and teachers in another.

Cheryl Wright, a math teacher at Gateway, also spoke up during the open session.

“When I first came to Gateway, I took a large pay cut, and the gap is growing wider,” Wright said.

She said the result is the inability to retain teachers, especially in math and special education.

“One of the greatest strengths of our district is the passion and dedication of our teachers,” Wright said.

Susan Rhoads, who teaches special education at Littleville Elementary School, said she also came to ask for support for the teachers and the new contract. Rhoads shared a chart that compared Gateway teacher salaries to 15 surrounding districts in the region. She said that a three percent raise would only bring Gateway teachers on par with the lowest paid district, and that teachers in all the districts shown are paid on average $7,000 more per year.

“I realize that difficult decisions will need to be made,” Rhoads said, adding that she didn’t envy the position the School Committee is in.

High School English teacher Rodney Kleber was the last to speak, adding that he was also publicly announcing his retirement.

Thanking Gateway Superintendent Dr. David B. Hopson for his support over the years, he referred to the current situation as “a field of battle.”

“All I know is, when we are together, this is a beautiful place to be,” Kleber said.

He spoke about increasing demoralization among the teachers after two years of negotiations for a contract, and urged unity.

School Committee Chair Michele Crane thanked the teachers for coming as a group, and for their public input. She then gave the floor to Hopson to speak about the lawsuit against Worthington and the Commonwealth.

“The court ruled that we didn’t have any standing in any of the things we put forth,” Hopson said.

“One of the big issues is the Legislature has the right to pass Mass General Laws,” Huntington Finance Committee Chair Darlene McVeigh said.

The town of Huntington was also a plaintiff in the suit. McVeigh said Judge Bertha Josephson wrote that education is the purview of the state so they have the right to pass laws about education.

Crane said that Gateway attorney Russell Dupere will attend the next School Committee meeting on February 24 to discuss the ruling in detail, and any future action Gateway might take.

Hopson said one immediate effect of the ruling is the loss of $84,000 that Gateway has been carrying in the FY17 budget as Worthington revenue to pay for its town’s share of teachers’ retirement benefits and Hampshire County retirement. He said this will now have to come from assessments to the towns or somewhere else in the budget. Later in the meeting, Gateway business manager Stephanie Fisk said the ruling also means a $100,000 shortfall in these categories for the FY16 budget.

Hopson said the legislation which allowed Worthington to withdraw only held Worthington liable to pay its share of capital costs for the school building, but not retirement benefits, which leaving through the regional agreement would have required them to pay. Hopson said the head of Worthington’s School Committee told him they are not intending to pay anything other than what is in the legislation.

In an FY17 budget presentation that followed, Megan Coburn, currently principal of Gateway Middle School (5-6) and both elementary schools (K-4), and Jason Finnie, currently principal of Gateway Junior High and High School (7-12), spoke about the reconfiguration of the district that will bring fifth grade back to the elementary school level, and create a middle school of grades 6-8.

The move is being made due to a combination of factors, including declining enrollment and budget constraints which will eliminate the middle school administrative office. Next year, Finnie will serve as Principal of the middle school (6-8) and high school (9-12).
Both Coburn and Finnie see advantages to the reconfiguration.

Coburn said the K-5 alignment doesn’t impact students in any way, and the biggest challenge is in scheduling and logistics. She said it will add more students and staff to the buildings, which most see as a positive development. Hopson said there will also be a transportation savings.

Some changes Coburn hopes to implement are a hands-on science lab for grades 3-5 with a teacher that will also do math interventions and possibly teach an after school robotics club. She is also looking into the possibility of offering band or chorus as a music special to fifth grade students, in advance of joining either group in sixth grade.

Finnie, a former high school teacher, said that after spending four years getting to know the Middle School students and staff, “I became convinced that this makes a lot more sense to share resources 6-8, and is a lot more developmentally appropriate.”

He said it allows for mentor relationships between teachers and students, and more teamwork among teachers. Finnie also said that scheduling is the most challenging part.

Finnie said some of the impacts from budget constraints will be the use of core teachers to offer electives and exploratories, an integrated wellness curriculum that combines physical education and health, and a shifting use of special education resources across grade levels.

“Do you think you can succeed in merging all of this together?,” asked Shirley Winer, School Committee member from Chester.

“We are stretched pretty thin,” Finnie said.

Hopson, Coburn and Finnie all stated that their goal was to not impact student services or lay off teachers. Instead, they have reduced administrative staff, and will not fill some positions that will be vacated due to retirement this year. The FY17 working budget has a reduction of a little over $400,000 from FY16.

Following the budget presentations, the School Committee convened into an executive session for union negotiations.

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