Inside Stories

Lowell School Committee approves one year contract with United Teachers of Lowell

LOWELL — The United Teachers of Lowell have a new contract.

The School Committee voted 6-1 in favor of ratifying the one-year agreement Wednesday, with School Committee member Jackie Doherty the lone no vote. School Committee members Susie Chhoun, Eileen DelRossi, Dominik Lay, Connie Martin, Stacey Thomspon, and Mayor Sokhary Chau voted in favor.

As first reported on InsideLowell last Thursday, under the contract, full-time teachers, paraprofessionals, cafeteria workers, and custodians will have $2,500 added to the baseline of their pay. There will also be a 2% raise mid-year for UTL employees.

Additionally, paraprofessionals who are deemed bilingual or bi-literate and are requested to perform translation services at school, during the workday will receive a $2,000 stipend. Paraprofessionals who substitute for administrative assistants, for up to two weeks before a clerical substitute is placed, will be paid an additional $75 per day.

The contract also creates a Joint Planning Committee, which will meet on a monthly basis, to discuss four goals. Two of the goals are focused on creating pathways for Lowell Public Schools teachers and paraprofessionals to further their education.

Should it have even been on the agenda?

Before a discussion could be had on whether or not to approve the contract, Doherty argued the motion put on the agenda by DelRossi was unlawful.

Doherty said there were executive session minutes that had not been approved for release and questioned how it could be on the agenda.

Lowell Public Schools Chief Operating Officer James Hall said while he recognized the situation was “unusual” he did speak to several city officials on the matter. He said it was his understanding that nothing discussed in executive session was being relayed to the public.

Hall also said a ratification vote took place on June 5 and details of the contract had been published to the approximately 1,700 UTL members. After UTL ratified, Hall informed School Committee members the union wanted to make no further changes. UTL President Paul Georges discussed the contract publicly on radio and sent out communications to his members.

“In noting that this is unusual, we have had bargaining rules which have required everything to be confidential. However my understanding is that the [American Federation of Teachers] doesn’t support bargaining rules being signed, so the UTL didn’t sign bargaining rules which would have mandated confidentiality,” Hall said.

Hall also said he spoke with City Solicitor Corey Williams and Williams did not instruct pulling the motion from the agenda.

Doherty responded by raising three points, the first being that the negotiations happened in executive session. She felt the matter had become a one-sided public negotiation.

“I’m not going to be coerced into negotiating a contract without our full negotiation team. As you know the city has a representative, in addition to the mayor, who is not present at this meeting but was present at the executive session negotiations. So I think that is clearly unfair labor negotiations,” Doherty said of her second point, adding that it could be a matter for the state Department of Labor Relations to take up.

Additionally, Doherty said according to the rules the committee was supposed to be abiding by, information about how people voted had been released, as was what was said under what she believed to be confidentiality, and that it could be a matter for the attorney general.

“I don’t know what city officials assured you that this unusual circumstance was acceptable but I don’t think it would stand the light of day according to the state attorney and the rules that we’re all supposed to be following,” Doherty continued. “It seems to me … that when there is a matter and certain people want to move forward they find a way to break the rules.”

Martin said the union had every right to proceed in the manner they did given that there were no bargaining rules. Additionally, she said executive session had nothing to do with bargaining rules. Instead, it was a commitment made by every member of the committee to uphold the laws.

“In addition to releasing the package, they also released inaccurate information. So the idea about who voted how, you should have been honest about it” Martin said, adding that there was not a full complement of people present to bring the vote forward.

DelRossi said she had a student attending Lowell Public Schools and she recognized the roles employees in the district played. She also emphasized her view that when she made the motion, nothing was confidential and she also emphasized that she had not broken executive session rules.

Lay said he supported keeping the motion on the agenda because he wanted to ratify a new contract with the old one reaching its expiration date.

“This motion is about getting the lower paid end of the school employees to have a little bit better pay and hopefully we can talk about that next year. Paraprofessionals are grossly underpaid and we need to bring their pay up,” Lay said to a round of applause from UTL members who packed the gallery and council chamber.

UTL members weigh in on the contract

UTL President Paul Georges said he had a timeline of what happened with ratification. On May 31 information was sent out and people saw what was being argued for on a Google Doc. It was a proposal by the UTL to the School Committee.

“It was what we thought was fair and reasonable,” Georges said. “What we understood was a kind of economic injustice that has grown over the years and parity has diminished between what teachers make and everyone else makes in the school system.”

Georges said the cost was modest and allowed people who had made the least amount of money over the years to catch up in “one quick move.”

“When you’ve got 8-9% cost of living increases, if you’re a teacher making $85,000 or $90,000 to a certain degree you have the ability to absorb the cost of living a helluva lot better than someone making $25-$30,000 in the school system,” Georges said.

Additionally, Georges said he found out who voted in certain ways by asking people, he informed his union members of who was willing to support the contract.

“I think the principle of fairness should be the overriding issue of whether or not this gets ratified here tonight,” Georges said.

UTL Executive Vice President Pina Maggio said the contract was historic, pointing to how each of the UTL’s units independently voted unanimously to approve the contract, which hadn’t yet been approved by the School Committee.

“It puts the spotlight on those UTL members who are undervalued and underpaid,” Maggio said, highlighting the hard work paraprofessionals in the district did for only around $25,000. While she said the contract didn’t go far enough, it was a step in the right direction.

Maggio also spoke of a recent conversation with Chief Operating Officer James Hall regarding retirement. She said Hall told her she should be retired at her age, citing someone in his family who wished they had retired sooner. She held up a white flip-flop urging Hall and the School Committee to walk in her shoes and the shoes of the UTL members.

School Committee discusses the contract details

Lowell Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Billie Jo Turner said a placeholder was in the district’s budget for negotiations and it was possible to fund the contract and there would be $11 million to cover inflationary raises mandated by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the contract.

Over the next four to five years, funds from the Student Opportunity Act will help the district’s budget, however, it was uncertain what would happen beyond that point Turner said.

Martin said it was important to find an agreement that could be sustained over time. She said she wanted something that would allow for raises and have additional savings that could provide funding. She did not want to be in a position where the district was laying off teachers.

“It is devastating to the individuals, it is devastating to the system,” Martin said.

Thompson said her mom was a teacher for 45 years and she was a teacher for 11, she understood the situation paraprofessionals were in.

“I want everybody to understand the support is there. I saw the sea of red, I came in, I smiled … It’s important for you to know that the way we can show it is really, unfortunately, sometimes limited and it pits people against each other when our goal is to support you all. It is to support our students,” Thompson said. “When I made the pledge to run, it’s because of equity and equity is for you all as well as for the students.”

Doherty reiterated her belief that the School Committee was in violation of executive session and those issues had not been resolved. She said that when she ran for the committee, it was following a cut of 100 positions in the district which never came back. Like Martin, she was worried about the funding.

“I completely support parity and bringing those lower-paid employees up. They’re not making a livable wage, they’re doing God’s work every day and they should be made whole, they should be increased,” Doherty said.

However, Doherty said the contract presented to the committee was a raise for every UTL member, even those who were receiving step increases and making over $80-90,000. She did not see that as being parity. There were also discussions in executive sessions that the public and UTL members did not know about, providing everyone with incomplete information.

“I feel somewhat coerced … I feel people are somewhat pandering because we’ve got an election coming up and my whole responsibility, while the staff is very important and a key piece of responsibility in this role, my whole responsibility is to the families, the children of this city,” Doherty said.

Doherty pointed to the City Council meeting on Tuesday and said there would be increased costs coming for everyone living in Lowell including tax increases, water and sewer increases, parking increases, and the city is one where the average person makes $50,000 and those people are renters. The fiduciary responsibility could not be overlooked.

On the contract, DelRossi said she believed over 50% of teachers, paraprofessionals, custodians, and cafeteria workers live in the city and their taxpayer dollars would be coming back into the city.

Mayor Sokhary Chau said he believed every elected person in the room and on the City Council does their best to ensure the entire city and the school system is taken care of. While each vote is difficult, this vote was about equity and being fair to the working class.

“I don’t think that this is a campaign issue. This is a quality of life issue. This is an equity issue,” Chau said, moving to the roll call vote.

Earlier in the meeting, Chhoun gave an impassioned speech stating she did not see any reason why the contract would not be supported, stating paraprofessionals, cafeteria workers, and custodians were especially underpaid.

“It takes a city, it takes a community to ensure our children and our students and our families are being well taken care of,” Chhoun said.

Given the debate over whether or not the motion was lawful, the School Committee voted on whether or not to move forward with the ratification vote. The vote to proceed passed 5-2, with Doherty and Martin in opposition. Chhoun, DelRossi, Lay, Thompson, and Chau voted in favor.

One response to “Lowell School Committee approves one year contract with United Teachers of Lowell”

  1. Bach says:

    Pay for para’s and others is really important to address. School Expenses are wildly outta control though. Cut the sick day buy back. Go to neighborhood schools to save on bussing (and rebuild the social support city wide destroyed) but most importantly curb central office admin spending. I mean I’d rather have an appointed school committe..but that’s for another day. Glad Eileen fights for rank and file

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