Boston Contract: A Policy Blueprint

By Bess Keller — November 13, 2002 15 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Once considered an obscure document crafted by insiders, the Boston teachers’ contract elicited an extraordinary outpouring of civic interest as its expiration drew near two years ago.

Besides the district administration and its superintendent, a coalition of more than 30 business, civic, neighborhood, and religious groups joined with news organizations to push for changes in the pact.

The Boston Teachers Union ran advertisements on cable TV, on radio, and in community newspapers complaining about the district’s rejection of its proposals. The coalition, in turn, launched its own media campaign with the blessing of the school administration.

At stake were the contents of the document that, more than any other, frames policy for the Boston public schools—from the equipment in each building and the maximum number of students in each class to the ways teachers spend their time and the decisions they make shaping their schools.

“There are huge policy implications that flow from labor contracts,” said Charles Kerchner, an expert on teachers’ unions and an education professor at Claremont Graduate University in California, “and mostly they are not recognized.”

In Boston, though, those issues became the subject of a very public fight. What happened there in 2000 illustrates one set of dynamics involved in modifying a teachers’ contract and how the changes are playing out now that the battle is over.

Researchers and education advocates disagree about both the proper scope for a contract and the wisdom of collective bargaining itself. Some call for a narrowing of contract issues to mostly pay and hours of work, while others go further and propose an end to the bargaining.

Critics of broad teacher-union power, such as the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, in San Francisco, tend to see collective bargaining as an impediment to collaboration and a perversion of the accountability system that is supposed to connect district officials with the school quality that taxpayers call for.

But others see a broad contract as a plus, if it is coupled with a commitment from both the district and the union to work together for school improvement grounded in flexibility for individual schools and professionalism for teachers. Proponents of that view argue that joint oversight ensures the support of teachers and capitalizes on their knowledge of schooling.

Boston’s contract, for one, has been evolving since the enactment of the Massachusetts law that gave teachers’ unions collective bargaining rights in 1965. In 2000, it numbered more than 150 pages, a plump little book that could not be ignored.

Urgency for Change

The urgency of grappling with the contract reached a peak two years ago for two reasons, the proponents of the changes say. First, Boston’s high school students were woefully off-track for meeting the state’s new graduation standards this school year. Second, after several years of solid economic growth, the city could afford to “buy” changes from the union with salary hikes.

“Basically, that’s the mentality,” said Samuel L. Tyler, the president of the Municipal Research Bureau. “You have to buy reform.”

About the first shot across the union’s bow came in March 2000, when the Boston Plan for Excellence, a nonprofit group that funnels private money to the schools, released a report calling for an end to teacher-seniority preferences in job placement. Replete with case studies of principals and school hiring committees that had struggled to improve their schools despite having to take teachers they didn’t want, the report argued that “contract negotiations offer an opportunity for progress.”

Instead, those negotiations grew testy early, with union members voting in April, four months before the contract was to expire, for “work to the rule.”

The strife came as something of a surprise to BTU President Edward J. Doherty, who represents 6,500 union members, about 5,000 of them teachers. “We’d had a collaborative relationship,” he said, referring to the leaders of the Boston public schools. “Negotiations got off to a bad start, and the disagreement went public very early in the bargaining.”

Indeed, the BTU, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, has a reputation as one of the new-style teachers’ unions that try to seek better education for students along with higher wages and improved working conditions for teachers. Its 1997 contract was hailed by Harvard University education professor Susan Moore Johnson for its “spirit of shared responsibility” and its “recognition that individual schools need to handle their own affairs.”

And yet, that history seemed immaterial as the 64,000- student district, along with the coalition, sought to set aside more time for certain kinds of professional development, lower class sizes only in the early grades, and, especially, clamp down on seniority preferences in job assignments—all joined with what the union considered bargain-basement raises.

The union, for its part, advocated substantial raises, reduced class sizes across the grades, and better working conditions.

Beers, Pizza, and a Deal

As the start of school in fall 2000 loomed, both sides wanted the upper hand in what the Boston Herald newspaper called “the most difficult contract negotiations in several decades.” Bargaining broke off at the end of August, with the union demanding a new proposal from the district.

The day before school opened, Sept. 5, the teachers approved another round of working to the rule—meaning, not taking on any work beyond the letter of the contract.What’s more, they decided that if they didn’t have a new contract on Oct. 11, they would vote on a strike of indefinite length.

As talks resumed in early October, advocates of doing away with the seniority preferences took 10,000 signatures to Mayor Thomas M. Menino. In a countermove, more than 2,000 teachers, many wearing buttons demanding “respect,” rallied at City Hall. Mr. Doherty, the union chief, cast the conflict as a power play by the Democratic mayor, who supported Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant in pressing for the contract changes. The Boston Globe declared in an editorial that parent support for the union’s position had “evaporated.”

Then came Oct. 10. Officials ended a 15-hour negotiating marathon in the wee hours of the morning with the superintendent reporting significant progress on class size, and the union president telling parents to get ready for the first open-ended strike in Boston in 25 years.

That evening, Mayor Menino summoned the two leaders to Parkman House, his ceremonial quarters on historic Beacon Hill. Over beers and pizza, the three reportedly began discussing the total cost of the package.

“Money was not a major problem,’ Mr. Doherty recalled about the negotiations. But “if they had not backed off on their seniority [proposals], we never would have reached a negotiated agreement.”

Almost from the start, in fact, seniority rights seemed to be the immovable object. The district and its allies argued that it made sense to hold principals accountable for the progress of their students only if they had greater control over who came to work in their schools. They also charged that, thanks to the extra steps involved in the protection of seniority rights, the district’s hiring process took too long and many of the best candidates were lost to the suburbs.

Under the existing contract rules, tenured teachers—usually those with at least two or three years’ experience—had rights to transfer into open positions before any outside candidates could be considered, as did such teachers who were returning from leave, whose positions had been eliminated, or who simply wanted (or were persuaded by their principals) to change schools. A particularly damaging part of the system, critics said, was the way senior teachers could “bump” most first-year teachers out of their jobs, which were considered “open” under the rules.

“We don’t like the fact that teachers can force themselves into schools where the principal and parents don’t want them,” said John Mudd, the executive of the Massachusetts Advocacy Center, a child-advocacy group that helped organize parents to study the contract and back changes.

Pointing to the protracted hiring process, he lamented that protecting the prerogatives of the maybe 50 teachers seeking transfers and another 100 or 200 affected by leaves or job elimination “holds the whole system hostage” through two or three months, with outside hires not possible till June or July.

In the battle, groups did not necessarily line up neatly behind the district or the union positions. The Citywide Parents Council was a member of the coalition fighting for the contract changes proposed by the administration. But reluctant to squander the goodwill of teachers, it “took a more neutral position” on whether tenured teachers without positions should be able to exercise their seniority in getting jobs, according to Peggy Weisenberg, a board member of the council.

Parents were concerned, she said, about bad teachers who might transfer from school to school, but not so much about teachers who could pick the school they wanted, within limits, after returning from maternity leave.

Hot Button

Seniority privileges are common in big-city teacher contracts, but as critics pointed out during the Boston battle, they are rare in suburban districts and are endangered in a growing number of urban ones.

In a groundbreaking 1997 contract, the Seattle district and the Seattle Education Association agreed to do away with leg-ups for teachers based on years in the system. Columbus, Ohio; Milwaukee; and St. Paul, Minn., have all made similar changes in seniority rights. Often, the changes are linked to a greater role for teachers in hiring at individual schools.

Still, the changes the Boston district proposed in 2000 went too far, Mr. Doherty of the BTU maintained. He pointed to several times over the past 10 or 15 years when the union relinquished seniority rights that apply to voluntary transfers. But teachers feel more strongly about the rights of those affected by shrinking schools or programs, he said, and the possible elimination of those pushed a button.

“Teachers really felt not respected and their work not appreciated,” the 20-year union leader said. “A principal could hire anyone he or she wanted to, and a career, veteran teacher could be out of luck.”

Added to that prospect, many older teachers—in a union whose average age is around 50—have felt singled out for criticism that they are not up to an increasingly demanding job, according to Mr. Doherty.

Robert L. Marshall, a 30-year veteran and union building representative at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School here, said he has experienced the pressure. In 2000, with the battle over the contract raging, “I felt we were going downhill in terms of having money to do things and support for working with kids who’ve got a whole lot of issues.

“You’re constantly having to prove your worth in the eyes of the public and the people who run the show.”

In such an environment, the symbolism of seniority rights may count for more than the substance. Or, as others suggest, perhaps union leaders need the specter of disrespect to rally their troops.

A Split Decision

Whatever the true importance of seniority rights to Boston teachers, in the end, the compromise scaled back but did not eliminate the seniority advantages.

Reached just hours before the strike vote was to be held, the new pact was hailed by the union, the district and the mayor as a good deal for teachers and a victory for the Boston public schools. Teachers overwhelmingly ratified the contract, which preserved the right of veteran teachers returning from leave, for instance, to get one of the three open jobs they apply for. But schools are protected from being forced to take a teacher in the first, or transfer, round of job assignment if that teacher is the only one interested in the job.

The contract compressed the hiring process, and vacancies are posted inside and outside the system on March 1, so that, in theory, as many as 40 percent of teacher vacancies can be filled by the spring. In addition, most first-year teachers no longer are subject to automatic bumping if a tenured teacher wants the job.

Estimated to cost more than $100 million over three years, the contract raised teacher salaries by 4 percent for each of the three years of the agreement. Added to other changes in the pay structure, that translated into a gain of about 18 percent for at least four out of five teachers in the system, Mr. Doherty said.

On some contract issues other than seniority rights, the union and the district also split the difference. The union favored and got class-size limits at all grade levels, not just in the early grades as the district had preferred. Both sides supported more paid professional-development time—but less of it than the district had wanted ended up under principals’ direction. The contract also requires elementary teachers to meet individually with parents twice a year.

All in all, many teachers believed the outcome of the bargaining wasn’t bad, especially when the raises were thrown in.

Patrick Lamerson, a science teacher at Hyde Park High School with 10 years of classroom experience, said the talk in his teachers’ lounge suggests that the changes in assignment policy haven’t caused a problem. “If [poor teachers] get passed around, that’s terrible,” he said. “And teachers know that to get rid of some of those people, you may have to weaken [seniority rights].”

On the other hand, Mr. Lamerson and his colleagues resent the professional-development time they don’t control. The sessions, he said, “tend to be poorly done and not useful because they are all done on the cheap.”

Making the Pact Work

While Boston teachers in the classroom have largely moved on from the events of 2000, those who fought the union for contract changes regret what they see as a job half done.

“I think I should have pushed back harder on the transfer language,” declared Michael Contompasis, the chief operating officer of the Boston schools, who also heads negotiations for the district. He and many of his community and business allies want to see a hiring system unencumbered by seniority protections.

At the same time, Mr. Contompasis, the second-in-command to Superintendent Payzant, is quick to acknowledge the problems don’t stop with the shortcomings of the contract, however much he wishes those gone. “The gains we made,” he said, “have not filtered down to the degree they should have.”

Mr. Contompasis, formerly the headmaster of the city’s respected Boston Latin School, said that principals have had a hard time making use of the opportunities afforded by the new contract because they have so much to do.

The Boston Municipal Research, a business-backed fiscal watchdog group that spearheaded the campaign for contract changes, documented some of that difficulty in a report last spring on the first hiring season since the new contract took effect. While the report praised the school system for scrambling to meet the new March 1 deadline for posting all jobs, that success apparently did not lead to consideration of many outside applicants.

Principals did hire 87 first-year teachers, as the new contract allowed. But they went further, and in many cases requested tenure for the new hires, which under the old contract had been the only way to protect those teachers. The report and the district’s leaders argued that, in most cases, keeping the teachers on probation would be a better approach because only then would they continue to be intensively evaluated.

But the number of first-year teachers hired may have cut into the number of positions that were open early to outside applicants. That’s because principals may have made even less use in 2001 of a cumbersome contract provision that under certain circumstances allows postings to go outside the system.

Mr. Tyler of the Municipal Research Bureau said that while he understands it takes time to learn new ways, the performance in 2001 indicates that the district is not yet paying enough attention to recruiting, hiring, and assigning staff members. Buttressing his point, he keeps a page of data points he wants to see the district’s human-resources office track, but that haven’t even shown up on its printouts yet.

“This needs to be a higher priority, and we’re saying this to Mike [Contompasis] and the superintendent,” Mr. Tyler said.

But he also concedes that the day-to-day crises of an urban system tend to defeat change. The district narrowly escaped dozens of teacher and other staff layoffs this past school year because of budget cuts. The uncertainties delayed the posting of jobs till August—a worse showing than in some years before the latest contract changes.

With a new round of negotiations due to start early next year amid worsening fiscal woes, neither the district nor the union is willing to raise many hopes for the bargaining.

“I’m predicting that given the city’s financial predicament, we may go for a one-year extension with a small incremental [pay] raise,” said Mr. Contompasis. “You can’t get substantial change out of a contract in a declining economy.”

Mr. Doherty isn’t saying yet what proposals he might put on the table.

What is certain is that even the current contract embodies neither the status quo nor the sweeping changes advocates sought. The agreement took small steps toward greater flexibility in the operation of Boston’s schools.

But new conditions may overtake the painfully slow process of change, suggested Ellen Guiney, the head of the Boston Plan for Excellence. “So many vacancies will be opening up [with retirements], that teachers will feel the loss of seniority less,” she said. With new teachers, many of them younger, arriving on the scene, the pressure on union leaders to continue the existing ways may lessen, she added.

“We made enormous contractual progress,” asserted Neil Sullivan, the executive director of the Boston Private Industrial Council, which oversees workforce and education issues in the city. “But you have to keep the [new hiring date] for a few years to allow the culture to change. If you sustain the change long enough, everything will move quickly.”

Coverage of leadership issues in education—including goverance, management, and labor relations—is supported by Broad Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Boston Contract: A Policy Blueprint


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated: April 17, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: March 20, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: March 13, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Briefly Stated: February 21, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read