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Teachers get 7% over 3 years after yearlong negotiation

Date: 3/29/2023

AGAWAM — After more than a year of negotiations, Agawam teachers finally have a new three-year contract.

A proposed contract was ratified overwhelmingly by members of the Agawam Education Association on March 16. The School Committee then approved the contract proposal with a 7-0 vote at its March 21 meeting.

With the new contract, teachers will get a 2.5% salary raise in the first two years and a 2% raise in the third year, for a total salary increase of 7%.

The pay boost does not include “step raises” that increase the basic pay from one step of the salary schedule to the next higher step. The contract — retroactive to Sept. 1, 2022 — does not require a vote by the City Council.

Mitchell Chambers, who led the AEA’s six-member negotiating team, said while the total salary increase is the same as what was originally offered to teachers last spring, the annual percentage increase is now larger in the first two years of the contract.

“It’s split differently because it’s front-loaded. This makes the total amount more favorable because of compounding that happens with the higher percentages at the beginning of the contract,” he said.

When negotiations began in January 2022, the AEA was seeking a 3% increase in each of the three years of the contract for a total increase of 9%. In May, the committee made a verbal offer that called for a 2% increase in the first two years and a 3% increase in the final year.

Under the AEA’s bylaws, a written proposal was required before teachers could vote on the proposal. When it was available in September. The AEA rejected the proposed agreement when it didn’t receive a two-thirds favorable vote required for approval. Once the contract was voted down, then the negotiation process had to go to mediation.

“We agreed to go to mediation, but it took more than six weeks to get a mediator. Then it took a couple of weeks to set up the appointment and the schedule. By then, Christmas hit and all of a sudden it was January,” said Chambers.

He said while it may have appeared from the outside that contract talks were stalled, there was “no intentional delay” in negotiations. “The process went as efficiently as it could, based upon the restrictions.”

As negotiations progressed, the AEA formed a “contract action” team to generate awareness among parents and other residents about teacher concerns. One of its actions was to produce flyers that were passed out at school open houses as well as distributed at the AHS Thanksgiving football game and at other events.

“The flyer was successful in bringing an awareness to the public about our issues,” said Chambers, “especially in getting people to email the School Committee.” Email addresses of the seven members were listed on the flyer and residents were urged to contact them to express support for teachers.

The flyer generated a total of 2,700 emails. Since most writers sent the same message to every School Committee member, Chambers said the total actually represents about 500 individual emails — 464 of which originated in Agawam.

Chambers said while some people might see this action as confrontational, it was within the “frame of negotiating” a contract. He described the tone of negotiations as “cordial and professional,” not adversarial.

“The School Committee was trying to support teachers and do the best it could financially with obligations it had to the town and to the taxpayers,” he said. “The whole process went smoothly. I’m happy with the result.”

Chambers said the majority of the 400 members represented by AEA — teachers, librarians, guidance counselors, school psychologists and teacher assistants — feel the contract is the “best deal” and “best offer” the union could achieve at this time. It was approved by 85% of the union’s members.

“I’m grateful for negotiations to be over and to have a new teacher contract that has been agreed upon by my colleagues,” said special education teacher Janine Iacolo. “Although the negotiations process was lengthy and often arduous, the union was ultimately able to negotiate a contract that’s fair and comparable to the surrounding districts.” 

Technology teacher Ryan Brown said he thought the negotiating team could have “exercised more leverage” on the monetary aspect of the new contract.

“Most teachers in our district remember the 2010 contract in which we accepted a zero percent [no raise] for one of the three years due to the Great Recession,” he said.

Although he felt the union’s proposal was “quite equitable,” Brown said he’s satisfied with the 7% increase: “I commend the tireless efforts of our union’s leadership in negotiations.”

One non-monetary issue — language that would standardize lesson plans for teachers instead of the current broad language that only says teachers have to have a lesson plan — was not resolved in negotiations. A committee of teachers and administrators will now work on writing new language.

“We wanted specific language that will be consistent from school building to school building and from administrator to administrator, since it could affect a teacher’s evaluation,” Chambers said.

Shelley Borgatti-Reed and A.J. Christopher led the School Committee’s six-member negotiating team. At the committee meeting, both said they were happy that the contract was approved.

Christopher said it was his first time going through the negotiating process. He said it was a “very good learning experience,” adding it was a pleasure working with both negotiating teams, though “I’m glad that that it’s all resolved and behind us now.”

Borgatti-Reed said she didn’t think anyone was happier and “more thrilled” than she and Christopher were that the contract was approved.

“Negotiating teams on both sides worked very hard. They were very professional. And it’s nice to come to a resolution. It was quite the experience.