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School Committee asks state to mediate contract talks with teachers

The School Committee and the Harvard Teachers Association have been in contract negotiations since December 2020 without coming to an agreement. On March 12, the School Committee filed with the state, asking for a mediator’s help. At Monday’s School Committee meeting, a member of the HTA bargaining team described the current state of negotiations as “unfortunate” and expressed concern that involving a state mediator would delay any agreement.

In spring 2020, the School Committee and the HTA reached agreement on a three-year contract. But the outbreak of COVID-19 created such economic uncertainty for the town that the School Committee asked to modify the contract to cover just one year. The committee’s major concern was that state revenues would plummet and lead to steep cuts in the state’s local aid to Harvard for the next year or longer.

HTA members agreed to the School Committee’s request and voted to accept the one-year contract. That agreement was ratified in May 2020 and provided for a 1.4% cost-of-living increase starting last September. But as a result, the School Committee and the Harvard Teachers Association had to forge a new contract this spring to start in fiscal 2022. (The costs of two union contracts—for the schools and the Department of Public Works—remain important unknowns in the town’s fiscal 2022 budget estimates.)

At Monday’s meeting, Bromfield School social studies department leader Kathleen Doherty read the HTA statement, which said the HTA team did not agree a mediator was needed. And the difficulty in getting timely meetings with the mediator, she continued, was slowing progress toward a contract. “Due to the mediator’s limited availability, our first mediation session is not until April 8, which is two and a half weeks away,” Doherty said. “The second session is set for two and a half weeks after that—on April 26. This scheduling is actually slowing down the process, not speeding it up.”

In a later email to the Press, School Committee Chair SusanMary Redinger responded that the School Committee had requested a mediator because negotiations “had reached an impasse after months of meetings.” Unlike Doherty, Redinger wrote that she expects negotiations to move quite quickly with the mediator’s help: “We are in the queue to begin working with the mediator and are actually hopeful that we can reach an agreement in one or two sessions, which would be in time for Town Meeting.”

Hopes for federal assistance

Redinger wrote that the School Committee is “still operating within the confines of a level-funded budget.” But she expressed hope that the town’s financial situation in fiscal 2022 might be less dire than expected. “We look forward to learning more about the monies coming to Harvard through the American Rescue Plan,” she wrote, “and whether or not they could allow for some flexibility in the FY22 budget.”

Doherty, too, had suggested in her statement that the federal aid packages passed in 2020 and 2021 might help the School Committee and the HTA work their way closer to the terms of the three-year agreement that was nearly ratified a year ago. “Given that ample federal and state resources are in place to mitigate the pandemic’s economic impact on municipalities and schools,” Doherty said in her statement, “ … the HTA team encourages you to work with us toward a contract that is in keeping with the spirit of the three-year contract that both of our bargaining teams previously agreed to last year.” Such an agreement, she said, “could certainly be agreed to more quickly and more amicably than one reached through mediation.”

Redinger expressed the committee’s appreciation for “the teachers who have worked so hard this year under extremely difficult circumstances,” a point she had also emphasized at Monday’s committee meeting. Redinger concluded her email saying, “[W]e hope to work together to find a solution that represents our shared commitment to providing the best possible service to our students.”

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