After nearly nine months of negotiations over a new contract for the island’s public school educators, the Nantucket Teachers’ Association and the Nantucket School Committee have filed jointly for mediation with the state. The joint filing means that both parties agree they have reached an impasse that cannot be resolved without outside assistance.
The filing, which the parties agreed to late last week, also frees them to speak about the issues that have led to the impasse, though representatives on both sides have been hesitant to share details.
“As anyone can guess, money is the biggest point of contention,” said Page Martineau, an NHS English teacher and president of the Teachers’ Association. “Our last contract, we took these tiny raises because no one knew what was going to happen as a result of [COVID-19]. What we were expecting coming into negotiations was higher than normal raises that acknowledged not only that we tightened our belts but also the amount of work that went into maintaining education over the course of the past three years.”
But, Martineau alleges, that’s not what they were offered.
“We’re not enormously far away, but we’re not there yet, and we’re not at the number we’re hoping for,” she said. “I think people are equating giving us a solid raise with respect. That would have been a sign of respect that people are really missing.”
Martineau’s comments echoed her remarks to the School Committee during its regularly scheduled meeting on June 20th. The meeting, filled with union supporters in red shirts and “FAIR CONTRACT NOW” stickers, was the most publicly visible sign of the stalemate in the negotiating room. The stickers also appeared on the caps of a number of seniors at the Nantucket High School graduation ceremony earlier this month, and many teachers are using the image as their profile picture on social media.
“Things have gotten emotional at the table,” Martineau said. “Hopefully, a mediator can help with that.”
Nantucket pays its teachers an average salary of just over $94,300, which is well above the state average of $86,118, but that doesn’t take into account the higher cost of living. That ranks the Nantucket public school district's average teacher compensation as the 56th highest in the state out of 316 public school districts in Massachusetts. But on Martha’s Vineyard, teachers are paid an average of closer to $103,600 — almost 10 percent more than Nantucket. Those figures are posted publicly by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).
Martineau declined to share the specific numbers the union and the administration are disagreeing on but added that it’s not only the yearly percentage raises that aren’t big enough.
“Another piece of this is the market adjustment,” she said.
Martineau said that after the pandemic, every town union, including the Teachers’ Association, was offered a $2,500 market adjustment, in part related to housing costs. Ultimately, the police department union representing its officers secured $10,000.
“The feeling is that the housing prices are no different for us, so why is it that we’re stuck with a measly $2,500?” Martineau asked.
One complicating factor is that while many Town unions negotiate directly with the town administration, the Teachers’ Association negotiates with the School Committee and Nantucket Public School administration.
School Committee chair Pauline Proch confirmed that the two sides have agreed to file jointly for mediation, but declined to comment further. Nantucket Public Schools superintendent Beth Hallett, who was off-island on vacation this week, said she had no comment other than "we hope to begin mediation soon to come to an agreement quickly and easily."
Beyond money, one issue that has hung over negotiations from the beginning is the teacher shortage gripping the public school system, which has struggled for years to fill roles across the district and has suffered from a lower teacher retention rate than the state average.
“One of the concerns I have is that administration at least publicly downplays the hiring crisis that we’re in. I understand why they do that; I understand they don’t want to put anyone in a panic about the state of the school system, but I think they should be a little bit more realistic about how they paint the picture,” Martineau said. “There are just not enough of us.
“That puts pressure on the system, and obviously, the housing situation out here makes it harder to hire,” she added. “The goal should be to retain the people we have. The people who are leaving, it’s not always a housing issue. Many of them are housed already and are leaving for a variety of reasons, many of which are the working conditions.”
Martineau did not further specify what the union’s problems with the existing working conditions are, beyond saying it involved a disagreement over “usage of our contractual time.”
Former Nantucket High School Science Teacher Amy Hinson elaborated that administrators want to add extra working time to the contract, but teachers don’t feel that is necessary.
“From a[n NHS] standpoint, that’s kind of a hard pass,” she said.
At least in NHS, she said, teachers have plenty of time to do their work but don’t receive proper guidance from the administration on how to use that time.
“What everybody is so frustrated with is the lack of organization from our administration about how to utilize [time not spent with students]. It is very, very poorly organized,” she said. “Sometimes tasks that are given to us are things we’ve already completed or things we can’t do.”
Hinson feels this is a recent development that has emerged since the beginning of COVID-19 and the arrival of Superintendent Elizabeth Hallett and NHS Principal Mandy Vasil to replace their predecessors Michael Cozort and John Buckey. “Before [COVID-19] and before the current administration, these were not issues I worried about,” she said.
“We have to come to a settlement,” Martineau added. “I don’t know how many sessions that will take, but I’m hopeful we can come to one quickly and move forward together. It’s not good for morale to have us at odds in this way.”
Negotiations likely won’t resume until late August or early September, even though the existing three-year collective bargaining agreement between the Teachers’ Association and the School Committee expires on June 30. That means even if mediation is as effective as Martineau hopes, negotiations won’t be complete before school starts in the Fall, and teachers will begin the year under an expired contract. But at least for now, there’s no risk of a strike.
“We’ll be there,” Martineau said. “We might be wearing red, but we’ll be there.”