ANDOVER, Mass. – For teachers unions and school administrators, work schedules are a touchy subject.
The schedule dictates the number of days each year teachers spend in the classroom, the number of hours in a day set aside for preparation, and the number of teachers necessary to provide instruction.
Put simply, time is money.
That’s why school officials in the Andover, Massachusetts school district are pressing the union to agree to a full schedule for the district’s high school teachers, who spend far less time in the classroom than their peers in similar districts.
The situation has left the district with more teachers than it needs, which is a huge drag on its already overloaded budget.
“Business as usual is just not acceptable right now,” Annie Gilbert, chairwoman for the Andover School Committee, told EAG. “We have a responsibility to ensure taxpayer dollars are being spent in the most efficient way possible.”
The way that Andover High School’s semester-style block schedule works, educators are required to teach three classes one semester and two classes the next. It’s an odd type of schedule used by only four other school districts in the state, but Andover is the only district where teachers aren’t expected to teach three classes both semesters.
That means Andover High School employs six teachers for every five in other districts with the same school schedule. The bottom line is Andover schools employ more union members than necessary, which means more dues revenue for the Andover Education Association, the local teachers union.
And the AEA – not surprisingly – has no interest in correcting the situation.
That’s been an ongoing problem in current collective bargaining negotiations, which have dragged on for more than a year and a half. School officials want to save precious operating dollars by cutting down the number of teachers on the payroll, which can only be done if educators teach a full schedule.
The district's aim isn't to issue lay-offs, but rather to leave some positions vacant when teachers resign or retire.
But union officials don’t want to sacrifice any dues dollars, and they're willing to fight over the issue. They've recently called for members to “work to rule,” meaning they only want them to perform the tasks plainly called for in their previous contract.
“In the process of negotiations when they refused to consider (a schedule change), we asked them, ‘Theoretically, what would it take to consider it? Is there a cost-of-living increase that would convince you?’” Gilbert said. “They essentially told us it wasn’t for sale.”
What do teachers want?
Last month, the teachers union and school committee agreed to create a task force aimed at developing a new high school schedule for next fall.
District officials had previously laid out two different options for moving forward: The first option would have two outcomes depending on whether the sides can agree on a schedule. If they do, and the schedule can be implemented by September 2012, then teachers would receive a 2 percent cost of living increase for 2012-13. If they can’t come to an agreement, then the schedule goes unchanged with no increase.
Under the second option, if a schedule is not in place by September 2012, then the current schedule would continue, but teachers would work three classes both semesters and receive a 2 percent cost of living increase.
Gilbert said she suspects that teachers in the district would rather put in the extra classroom time, but union leaders don’t like the idea, and they’re calling the shots.
“I imagine the majority would say yes (to teaching an extra class), but we have a very (strong) teachers union and it just seems to be a deal breaker for them,” Gilbert said. “I think it’s fair to draw the contrast between what we hear from teachers and what is reported by union leadership.”
In recent years, the Andover school district has faced financial problems common to most public schools, and has repeatedly and unsuccessfully requested help from the AEA, in the form of changes to the class schedule and other financial concessions. Other unionized employee groups in the district have pitched in, Gilbert said, but the AEA has refused.
“We’ve had to make some painful reductions since 2009, and they’ve been ongoing,” Gilbert said. “The teachers union, we’ve asked them a number of times if they would consider (concessions) and they declined.”
“We’ve sort of really reached a tipping point,” Gilbert said. “A lot of the reaction we hear from our (union) … is ‘Why don’t they value their teachers?’ but it’s frustrating because it is no different in towns across America.
“We’re all sort of running up against this broken model.”
Because of the union’s aversion to concessions, school officials have been forced to eliminate teachers and guidance counselors. Gilbert said some of the cuts would likely have been avoidable with help from the AEA.
The current contract dispute is now in the mediation phase, and the union instigated the work-to-rule action last month, discouraging its members to do any work beyond their contractual requirements. The situation is wearing thin on the community, Gilbert said.
Gilbert said parents have complained that some teachers have been unavailable for extra help after school, and others have used class time to discuss contract negotiations. Several educators have reportedly slowed down or altered their lessons to give students down time to read quietly or work individually so they can grade papers they would normally take home.
“There have also been protests outside of the schools, which the community doesn’t like,” Gilbert said.
In a letter to parents last month, the Andover school committee laid out what it found when it compared the district’s high school schedule with more than 60 others in the state, including those in similar communities and higher performing districts.
“Of these 60+ school districts, only four … have a semesterized four-block high school schedule like ours. In every one of these schools, the faculty teaches three classes each semester, rather than three in one semester and two in the other like the teachers at Andover High,” the letter said.
Students, meanwhile, are growing irritated by the work-to-rule protest. They've formed a group called Students for Action and have gathered hundreds of signatures for a petition to encourage both sides to break the stalemate.
"We are going to be the ones living with it for the rest of our lives," Emily Brownholtz, an Andover High junior, told the Andover Townsman. "The School Committee and teachers need to figure out what they are doing, because the lack of decision-making that is going on is affecting the students."