Coming back from a late August vacation, I caught up on emails and was struck by Mayor Fuller’s August 28 update, which focused on the current school department contract negotiations, providing the equivalent of an open letter to the Newton Teachers Association. As a person who offers professional advice to companies and individuals on negotiation, I couldn’t understand why she choose to publicly address the union members in this way. What was her purpose? To make sure they understood her good faith desire to reach an agreement? To weaken their negotiating position? To give political cover to herself if she ultimately accedes to their major contract demands? And why was the message coming from her? The jurisdiction for this negotiation centers on the School Committee. Yes, she is an important member of the School Committee, but why is she presenting herself as the decision-maker in this dispute?
If the purpose was to strengthen the City’s bargaining position, the issue was all the more confused because the administration has been sending mixed signals to the union and the public. On the one hand, the Mayor makes clear her view that the allocation of the City budget to the schools is fixed, presumably based on her assessment of the limits of City funds that are available. But then actions by the Mayor seem to contradict that implied limitation. For example, she was the person who forcefully pushed for and achieved the expansion to full-day kindergarten, adding costs to the school budget over what would have otherwise been the case. She did so notwithstanding, reportedly, that expansion of the kindergarten day was not a priority of the school system. She is also the person who issued a no-bid contract for several hundred thousand dollars to assess the scope, scale, and location of a new senior/community center (NewCAL), employing free cash from the City’s accounts. And she also proposes to spend $16 million on that new project, not counting annual operating costs. So, if I’m representing the union, am I supposed to believe that funds for the teachers contract are limited to the current allocation?
On the other side of the coin, there are people representing the City in the negotiation who believe that the salaries of school teachers must be raised to be comparable to surrounding communities. Maybe and maybe not. If we look at the rate of successful recruitment of teachers who’ve been offered jobs and at the high rate of retention (89.3%), there is no indication that Newton has any problem attracting and keeping the best talent for our children. Achieving the rate of pay in surrounding communities would be a budget-buster, making it all the more difficult to fund other educational priorities and interfering, too, with the Mayor’s other stated priorities with regard to future pension obligations and the like. While there might be a temporary downturn in enrollment that could provide some financial wiggle room, such patterns do not last forever. Salary increases do; in fact, they compound over time. So, is the Mayor’s email meant to plow the earth with the public in the event she gives in to the union on such matters, attempting to make us think that she has bargained hard?
So, really, what was this all about?