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Reader Question on Westford Teacher Step Increases

Welcome to our latest "You Asked, Patch Answers!" To submit your own question, please e-mail us at westford@patch.com

One reader asked us recently why Westford's teachers have not gotten step increases, a contractual raise found in most school districts based on tenure, since the teachers' contract expired earlier this year, even though other parts of the contract were still being observed.

We asked both sides on the issue this question, and here's what they said.

School Committee

"The teachers' contract expired on August 31, 2011, and any wage increases, including "step" increases are subject to negotiation.  Needless to say, raises can never be presumed, especially in these difficult economic times. 

The teachers' negotiating team declined the School Committtee's offers to continue bargaining in July and August before the expiration date of the contract. The School Committee and Administration cannot legally discuss contract issues directly with the teachers, we can only have such discussions through the teachers' bargaining team or it's union representative. Therefore, it is up to the teachers' negotiating team to keep its members fully informed. 

The School Committee negotiating team is doing everything possible to craft a contract that is fair to the teachers, beneficial to the students and mindful of the available resources.  

We will continue to do our best to negotiate honestly and to move the process along as expeditiously as possible. 

Presently, since Mediation was requested by the teachers negotiating team, we are bound by the Mediation schedule. 

We will be meeting during four consecutive weeks starting on January 11, 2012 and we have high hopes that we will reach a negotiated settlement that everyone can live with during that time period."

-Angela Harkness, chairwoman, Westford School Committee

Teachers

"The WEA (Westford Education Association) was disappointed when our members did not receive steps in the fall.  What we believed to be past practice did not occur this year.

Generally until a new contract is established the remaining contract remains in place and staff and administration adhere to the language of the contract.

This means staff members comply to the language of the contract outlined and in the past they received the next step in the contract: cost of living increases would not occur unless a new contract was established and agreed to by both sides."

-Ruth Freeman, president, Westford Education Association

N Hurst January 18, 2012 at 11:00 AM
Support WPS? Support WPS Teachers! Teacher working conditions are student LEARNING conditions!
Dan D. January 25, 2012 at 08:43 PM
Every other union in town has accepted that there is no more money. I believe that if the teachers get more goodies, the town has to open up the bargaining again for all the other unions? So, any math teachers out there? Any logic teachers? What happens if there is a finite sum of money, but people get more money out of it? Here it is....are you ready?....sit down....Fewer people get more $$ each!!!! In other words, positions and people have to go! I think that is the choice. We are not in the land of unicorns and rainbows, just cold, hard numbers. Do we need the more, less or the same numbers of teachers and administrators? Is teacher retention a problem in Westford? Is recruiting the best teachers a problem? How come I can't find any real numbers that relate to any of these questions?
Dan D. January 25, 2012 at 08:43 PM
Amber, you cynic you!!
AB January 27, 2012 at 05:46 AM
Dan, sometimes. ;)
AB February 01, 2012 at 12:19 AM
A very bright woman I know once told me, "teachers eat their young". In other words, the teachers who've been around longer know the only jobs at risk are those of younger, newer teachers so they will push for as much money as they can because if there are layoffs it probably won't impact them. But there I go being cynical again. :)
June Mary February 20, 2012 at 08:12 PM
Amber not only their young. Follow the link to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-piPkgAUo0w and see the true colors of the NEA.
Local April 18, 2012 at 08:37 AM
I'm fairly certain the fiscal year ends in June or July. Teachers were contractually obligated to come in a couple day at the end of august. Contract was still in full effect, and teachers now at new steps, they weren't paid. That's a clear violation (and spit in the face, they couldn't afford 2 days steps to honor their end?) THe september thing is nothing more then them saying we start sending out your checks in September. You can't make them come work in August and pretend it was september, not even if you're salary. If I recall the last round of contracts teachers made concessions on Health insurance. They contribute more to health insurance than literally almost everyone else in the state, & they're paid less. What did iit get them? You are teaching your educators that sacrificing for the town only shows them where their pockets are for the next round....
Local April 18, 2012 at 08:53 AM
Dan D, I'll answer you more in depth tomorrow as I do love math but very quickly the reason the union had to take it legal to the labor board is that they separate negotiating the committee did is not legal. Very illegal in fact, yet on one is mad at the incompetent school committee.... The other is that most contracts (I write many) have a continuation clause that basically says if this contract ends and a new one is not agreed to, this will remain in effect as the defacto contract. And according to it, the teachers should get the steps. The SC knows this, that's why they put it in the budget, and approved it. I can't find the quote anywhere but if you dig you'' find it as on my life it exists. Ms Harkness said (paraphrased) they do have the money they are just holding it (this was in response 2 someone asking what happened 2 all that money they are saying now they don't have) But go to westfordma.gov and really look at al the financial stuff. You'll see they have always been firing and hiring (more of the latter) Their money situation is actually better than many neighbor towns who manage to pay teachers far better. Why is that? They spend spend spend.Populations & enrollments have not increased that much in the last 5 years, but town officials have gotten assistants (full time, no degree, higher salary than the teachers) along with yearly $5k-ish raises & $2-4K bonuses, the first of which was skipped this year. Those alone cover ur teachers pay for more than 2 years.
Local April 18, 2012 at 09:08 AM
Go to westfordma.gov & really look at all the budgets and finanials they have on record, you will see what I'm talking about There is even 2 separate budget reviews and both basically say that Westford's schools are saving them a ton of $. The superintendents budget all he does is brag about how great the schools are. You'll also see millions spent every year, on more conservation land, new construction (low income housing, that is not going to help your finances in the long run) new hires, assistants, astroturf fields (two of them planned ) on Nutting Rd. THe list is endless, but no one wants to bother to see why they are "so broke" when the poorest of towns are managing fine, the just accept the teacher excuse they are fed and run with the anger. It's all their in black and white. If times are so bad and we (teachers really) need to tighten their belt, why has town spending never slowed down, in fact just keeps going up? Because of the $500K ish for teachers? Why have no town officials "tightened" their belt. Teachers way underpaid compared to the rest of MA. The town admin, very highly paid. It's a scam being well played by the SC and you are falling for it. SPend the few hours scouring the finances and you'll see the teachers have every right to be pissed. Million dollar outside astroturf fields,...thats what we need in this "crisis" check the link below http://www.wickedlocal.com/westford/news/x1184532375/Top-salaries-paid-to-town-employees#axzz1s8UcTith
Willy April 18, 2012 at 11:53 AM
Only in Westford does the town have the audacity to state 'there is no money' to teachers while conducting interviews for new teaching positions at the same time. This alone is why WPS Teachers will never accept a contract without steps, the teacher's trust-goodwill-faith in the town is long gone. And the Superintendent is like an absentee landlord as far as most teachers are concerned, the leadership just isnt there and the school system is like a boat adrift at sea. The Super thinks that challenging year is all this is? Does he realize he lost all respect of many this year? Probably not with what I have heard...very disheartening!
Local April 19, 2012 at 02:56 AM
Willy,I inquired someone at the school @ how many teachers have been laid off to account for the new hires they are calling for every year (literally) and it's not an official answer, but the person had not seen or heard of any teachers being laid off. I noted before how Westford keeps their "kids per class" low, at the time it was 18. So people may argue they shouldn't be paid like other places because they have it easier. But if they can keep their expenditure average as low as it is, you WANT them to have as few kids as possible. The teacher can devote more time to each child. It's a better learning environment than 30 kids. Fast forward to now, the average is 14. Could still be great, but the upper school admin has done it through hire, hire, hire, & now want to pay for it with the steps they are withholding. (an early document indicated they hoped to get 3 years of no steps, if you find it please tell me, I will keep looking. Teachers don't break until they've been there for @ 10 years or more, depending on their cost of education. They depend on steps like wait staff does tips. The town benefits w/cheap labor for a few years (remember, requires a masters degree) Tough decisions have to be made, but new jobs, & especially the stimulus jobs should go before any 4-5 yr teachers or older forego steps for any amount of time. They have hired too many teachers, & stimulus $ hires should have had it made known 2 them there job was temporary from the start. (cont)
R Freedmn January 01, 2013 at 10:32 AM
Pay our teachers near the bottom and expect top tier DCL schools, love it. The most gusto this group could muster was one week of work to rule, in other districts it would have been working to rule on day #1 not suspended till steps were paid
Alex Finnegan January 01, 2013 at 12:44 PM
You drudged up an old thread but you are right about the teacher's unions. I hear them represented all the time as thugs. Deal with the IBEW, Teamsters etc, you will see what a strong union is. The teachers were very accommodating. I still have not heard back from the school committee on where the approved step raises in the budget went. They took them from the teachers…where is it? Secondly when there is a rift in the circle, things don't continue as in the past and the SC caused quite a rift over what was like .1% of the budget that they already had…it's just mind blowing
R Freedmn January 01, 2013 at 02:16 PM
The ridiculous thing is that the school leadership think it's business as usual out of sight out of mind and it's like last year's beat down didn't ever happen. The giving giving giving with their time attitude of teachers isn't what it used to be which is understandable yet fully unacknowledged by the SC
Local January 02, 2013 at 11:19 AM
I too would like to know where budgeted money for previously negotiated step increases for teachers last year ended up getting spent.... My gut tells me some went to fund new positions (SRO) since added to the town budget with this 'found' Money
Sam January 02, 2013 at 04:47 PM
Based on what all these teachers have saidi over the last year, why are they still griping about this? The assumption was they would all be leaving. Remember the brain drain. I am waiting for the footsteps out the door...
Alex Finnegan January 03, 2013 at 03:58 AM
I pointed out that someone revived an old thread. As for the assumption they would all be leaving... back in September or August Olsen pointed out that 8-9 teachers were leaving for higher pay and said that Westford was going to have to come up with a better way to compensate it's teachers or the exodus would continue. The article was here on the patch, search for it. You aren't waiting for the footsteps out the door, you are just ignoring them. Westford schools and Westford parents have high expectations and I think that is great. But paying them amongst the 40th percentile and then pulling that stuff they did last year the brain drain started immediately and will continue until as Olsen said Westford is able to compensate better. Not paying attention doesn't mean it isn't happening.
Sam January 03, 2013 at 11:39 AM
1. You have no idea why they were leaving unless you personally interviewed all 8. Each year teachers leave for a variety of reasons. 2. The percentage of turnover is no different than any other year. The door is always open.
Alex Finnegan January 03, 2013 at 03:54 PM
I do know why they are leaving because Bill Olsen said why they were leaving. Do a search. The idea teachers walk in and out of this job is incorrect. Some retire, but most are laid off/hired by enrollment. You think in this economic climate teachers just leave? That was one of the cards the S.C. was holding and used silently during bargaining. So if they don't just leave we can compare enrollment numbers with teacher numbers & when you do that you get http://profiles.doe.mass.edu/profiles/student.aspx?orgcode=03260000&orgtypecode=5&&fycode=2010 You will see that there is typically a correlation between enrollment of students and number of teachers. Well enrollment for 2012 was almost identical to 2011, it increased by 1 student yet we lost 8-9 teachers specifically for compensation reason. It's no coincidence that in the surrounding towns when I did a workup of 2012 positions there was about 8-9 better paying gigs close by. 2013 may not be as drastic but if the S.C. thinks the feelings have passed on the part of the teachers they are sorely mistaken. Keep in mind all they wanted was to continue on their underpaid trajectory, the town had and approved the money, the enrollment was there & climbing. The cost per pupil ratio is way below average and so is the sped population. Westford schools should be swimming in money. What is the problem? Everyone so concerned about teachers state of mind & seemingly completely unconcerned with where the problem really is.
Sam January 03, 2013 at 04:11 PM
Yet the teachers that left were also replaced. Are you and your brain drainers assuming that the replacements are less qualified? Because they are younger? Because they are not getting paid what Acton is paying? I agree with you that the town completely mismanages just about anything it touches and there is no reason, based on what we all pay in taxes that things should be a bit easier on all of us. Like all the town departments the schools too have to look at overhead and staff (excluding teachers) and trim down. That will never happen...
Gaudedfi January 03, 2013 at 04:18 PM
Olsen conducted exit interviews, lets be clear more than 9 teachers left WPS last year (one who retired now has the WA ball court named after him). 8-9 is the teachers who left and cited pay to Olsen as primary reason for leaving. Not always but generally true is the old maxim you get what you are willing to pay for
R Gagnon January 03, 2013 at 05:16 PM
I would rather pay for some fresh faced teacher fresh out of college wanting to establish him/herself as a good teacher through hard work. We could use fewer tenured teachers repeating the same course content year after year sucking up unearned raises written into union driven contracts.
Alex Finnegan January 03, 2013 at 06:44 PM
"Yet the teachers that left were also replaced." They were? Show me how you know that "Are you and your brain drainers assuming that the replacements are less qualified?" Yes, just as in any job it takes time to learn the lay of the land. Let's assume they didn't even hire young fresh "cheap" teachers to save money, they will still have to learn Westford's way of doing things and will therefore almost certainly be less efficient. "Because they are younger?" If they are younger definitely. Have you ever talked to or seen a first year teacher vs a 10 year teacher? Tell me, in what other job do you not get better as you gain experience? "Because they are not getting paid what Acton is paying?" That doesn't mean they are less qualified, but it is a huge draw for teachers to leave Westford and head to greener pastures like Acton or Concord. Answer this, after one town took away two years raises that you were expecting, and other towns nearby not only paid the steps but they also pay more for the same job, sometimes a $15K a year difference and better insurance, wouldn't you leave?
Alex Finnegan January 03, 2013 at 06:55 PM
"Like all the town departments the schools too have to look at overhead and staff (excluding teachers) and trim down." No they don't because they are unique. Few other town jobs require a masters degree, many start at higher pay, higher raises, top pay in 8 years, not 14, overtime pay, many other town jobs earn more per year, with less education, less work days, and make it to top pay almost twice as fast. You can't expect more from the teachers. R Gagnon wrote "I would rather pay for some fresh faced teacher fresh out of college wanting to establish him/herself as a good teacher through hard work. We could use fewer tenured teachers repeating the same course content year after year sucking up unearned raises written into union driven contracts." You contradict yourself. Why would a teacher want to establish him/herself as a good teacher if once they reach tenure they are considered "bad" anyway. And they aren't unearned raises even though from time to time I catch myself calling it a "raise" It's delayed payout for their education. Otherwise no one is going to go to 6 years of school to start at a job making $39K with 11% taken right off the top for retirement plus taxes & insurance. New teachers make dirt. They are more like pre-earned raises. They delay the real payout over 14 years. If Mass wants it's teachers to have Masters degrees it must compensate them on par with other Masters degree jobs or people will stop doing the job, it's just the way the world is.
Sam January 03, 2013 at 07:15 PM
And who held the gun to their heads while they went to school to become teachers. I assume that all these rates of pay etc were in place while they were in school correct?
Alex Finnegan January 03, 2013 at 07:19 PM
The teacher average salary across the spectrum in Westford is $68k I believe and they are the ones breaking you? I don't think so. If you look into these peoples contracts as well as the other town groups you will see that teachers don't stack anywhere near the top. I've read the contracts, everyone I can get my hands on. Police, Fire, Office workers. I think a lot of you would be enlightened to see that teachers for all they have to deal with don't do that well in Westford. So why are they the targets? You want good teachers and schools? You have them. How about a little gratitude instead of scorn. You don't have the financial advantage on your side at the moment. Destroying teacher morale is an ultra dumb move at this juncture because I can tell you one thing. All those classes didn't make teachers dumb and if they are not given the respect they deserve for their hard work they will go some place where they can find it and it just might come with a raise to boot. http://www.wickedlocal.com/westford/news/x1184532375/Top-salaries-paid-to-town-employees#axzz1s8UcTith
Thomas Pickersgill January 03, 2013 at 11:09 PM
Anyone who doubts nearly a dozen teachers left over money and another dozen interviewed elsewhere this summer need only call or email superintendent Olsen if you think it's false and he will confirm this as true, and folks this will only pick up speed should the past negotiations play out again. Next year...
Alex Finnegan January 03, 2013 at 11:42 PM
Sam wrote "And who held the gun to their heads while they went to school to become teachers. I assume that all these rates of pay etc were in place while they were in school correct?" You are finally getting it. The rates of pay were in effect, in contract (the contract lasted through Aug 31, and the teachers worked Aug 31) and in the approved budget and they reneged. As for the guns to the heads to go to school to become teachers….some people choose to become teachers as a career, but with Massachusetts requirements for teachers and Westford's own high standards they have to make money at some point of people are going to stop choosing that career path, at least they won't work in Westford. You keep skipping the questions I ask you, have you compared the other contracts of town employees. You can get them by sending an email to the town hall site. Read the contracts then tell me the teachers got a fair shake. It wouldn't hurt you to check out some other districts contracts as well. You already admitted the town handles money poorly, and they punished the group that handles your money immaculately while keeping you one of the best school districts in the state…in a state that is at the top of the U.S.A. Teachers deserve every bit of what they get, and they certainly didn't deserve what happened to them last year.
Alex Finnegan January 04, 2013 at 01:06 AM
If the past negotiations play out again next year I think the teachers and Union will be better equipped to handle it. Aside from that the town can't afford to have another negotiation go down like the last one. What really needs to happen is for the residents to say enough. We know what we pay in taxes, we know how efficient the schools run…what is the problem? I've looked at all the budgets as far back as they go on line and for a town that is just so broke last year, they are actually doing well. Better in fact than many towns that pay teachers higher and honored steps. IMO Westford just took advantage of the economic situation cuz they could. There was no money shortage, they just chose a credit rating increase over their workers. Gotta maintain that elite image at any cost.
Thomas Pickersgill January 04, 2013 at 02:06 AM
If next year's Contract negotiations is another railroad job by the SC, I forsee WPS teachers working to rule from day one.... No more laying down to get assaulted from behind

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