Gill-Montague educators begin ‘work-to-rule’ citing failure to settle fair contract

By JULIAN MENDOZA

Staff Writer

Published: 06-06-2023 6:27 PM

MONTAGUE — Having worked without a new contract since last summer, Gill-Montague Regional School District educators began “work-to-rule” on Monday, scaling their efforts back to their contract’s minimum requirements.

The Gill-Montague Education Association (GMEA), a union primarily comprised of the district’s teachers, voted to start work-to-rule in response to the Gill-Montague School Committee’s “failure to settle a fair contract,” according to a handout distributed by the GMEA. Work-to-rule dictates that the teachers will “only work the hours and tasks outlined in [their] current contract,” forgoing volunteer roles, declining to provide extra help to students outside of school hours and using preparatory time for nothing other than necessary preparation.

“GMEA members have been forced into action as a result of the Gill-Montague Regional School District Committee’s inability to negotiate a fair and competitive wage package for Unit A members,” reads a statement the group released Monday. “While the GMEA continues to negotiate in good faith and propose creative solutions, there have been essentially no counter-offers by the committee.”

The GMEA and School Committee have been conducting contract negotiations since March 2022, according to a statement contributed by the GMEA Executive Board. While there was a tentative three-year agreement reached in August 2022 outlining raises between 2% and 3% each year, it was rejected by the GMEA that October.

“While there were several reasons for this rejection, the main reason can be summed up in one word: value,” the executive board’s statement explains. “The GMEA asserts that the committee’s salary offers have been below the current market value in comparison to other local districts and the current state of the job market. This leads to an unstable workforce, where employees seeking higher salaries will be hired elsewhere, leaving our students with a revolving door of professional staff.”

“The district believed that our agreed-upon three-year salary increase was not only reasonable and appropriate, but it was also comparable to many school district settlement agreements negotiated by our attorneys in western Massachusetts,” School Committee Chair Jane Oakes reasoned in a contributed statement. She referenced contracts from three Franklin County school districts among a list of examples, including the Greenfield School Department’s contract; the Pioneer Valley Regional School District’s three-year contract with 2% yearly increases amounting to a 6% cumulative increase; and the Frontier Regional School District’s three-year contract with 2% yearly increases amounting to a 6% cumulative increase, plus a 3% first-year increase for Step 13 staff, amounting to a cumulative 6.5% increase.

Over the next four years, the GMEA is requesting an initial 2% increase for teachers, followed by 3% increases the next three years. This represents an extra 1% increase to the 2% raises proposed in the original tentative agreement for the third contract year, as well as a fourth contract year at a 3% increase. It also mirrors the contract settled in the Greenfield School Department, noted GMEA Co-President Heidi Schmidt.

The GMEA reasoned that salary increases should adequately help offset the 6% yearly inflation, a standard rationale across school districts during contract negotiations. According to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), Gill-Montague teachers are already comparatively underpaid, which contributes to a staff retention rate of 77.9%, lower than the state’s average retention rate of 84.6%.

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“It’s important to reiterate that in early April, there were 18 job postings for professional personnel within a 10-mile radius of Turners Falls,” reads the GMEA Executive Board’s statement. “This does not even include paraprofessionals or other non-professional, but absolutely essential, staff. That means in the last third of the school year, there were 18 professional vacancies within a small radius of our schools. That is astoundingly high for this time in the school year.”

Schmidt expressed that the GMEA appreciates and understands that School Committee members “are trying to do the best with what they perceive is available,” but that they may be stymied by the rigidity of the budget. She did, however, cite concerns that $200,000 in the district’s “excess and deficiency” fund has not been delegated toward teacher salaries. She said $200,000 would be more than enough to pay for the 1% additional increase requested by the GMEA for the next school year. Speaking about that idea, Oakes explained this money cannot support salaries because it is “designed for one-time funding, not for recurring expenses.”

Reach Julian Mendoza at 413-930-4231 or jmendoza@recorder.com.

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