Hampshire Regional educators, backers rally for long-stalled contract

Hampshire Regional High School 2019

Hampshire Regional High School 2019

By MADDIE FABIAN

Staff Writer

Published: 01-26-2024 5:03 PM

WESTHAMPTON — As Hampshire Regional School District teachers approach five months of working without a contract, over 115 community members showed up to an online forum Thursday night in support of the union’s fight for a new deal.

The forum was held by the Hampshire Regional Education Association (HREA) — the 109-member union representing teachers, paraprofessionals and administrative assistants — in conjunction with the Western Mass Area Labor Federation.

Speakers at the meeting included teachers, union representatives, parents, taxpayers, a former teacher, and an alum, all of whom expressed their support for the union’s wage proposals and requests for increased parental leave.

“HREA is asking for a fair cost of living increase that recognizes the historic rise in inflation and that makes up for decades of inadequate wages and increases, and for access to paid parental leave for educators starting families,” said Rose Bookbinder, president of the Hampshire-Franklin Labor Assembly representing over 60 public and private sector unions.

“Over the past few decades, Hampshire Regional has fallen well behind neighboring districts and is at risk of losing many veteran educators to neighboring districts with more competitive salaries.”

Hampshire Regional serves students from Westhampton, Southampton, Williamsburg, Goshen and Chesterfield.

Over a year after contract negotiations began, the union and committee are currently in mediation.

The School Committee is currently offering annual raises of 2.5%, 2.5% and 2.5% over the next three years, up from the previous 2%, 2% and 2.5%, and its original offer of 1%, 1% and 2% hikes. The committee is also offering a proposal providing two weeks of paid parental leave.

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The union is proposing 3.5%, 3.5% and 3.5% increases, down from its original proposal of 8%, 5% and 5%, and union members are asking for four weeks of paid parental leave, down from their original ask for eight weeks of paid leave.

“Our school district has the money,” said union co-President Greg Reynolds, who emphasized that last year over $600,000 was sent from the district back to the member towns.

In October, School Committee Chairman Thomas Cleary Jr. explained in an email that reports provided by Hampshire Regional High School to the state showed $617,734 above the allowable balance in the excess and deficiency fund.

Following state guidelines, that excess was redistributed to member towns of the school district.

School Committee member Margaret Larson, who is on the bargaining committee, said in an email that committee members cannot comment on negotiations in progress.

At an October School Committee meeting, Larson said the committee values employees, but that the union’s proposals would result in layoffs, potential program reductions, and the need for budget overrides by one or more of the five member towns.

Posted on the district’s website, the School Committee calculates that over three years, with existing contractual step increases, their current proposal amounts to an increase of $622,000 in compensation, or 9.2% over three years.

Meanwhile, Reynolds said the union’s calculations show an increase of only 1.13% over three years, not taking into account existing step increases in pay.

“We’re pushing back against a decade of, let’s just put it mildly, less-than-ideal pay,” Reynolds said.

Also in attendance at the meeting were representatives from unions including the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Massachusetts Society of Professors, and other unions; and Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa and Sen. Paul Mark sent letters of support along with Sen. Jo Comerford, who does not represent the district.

“We know that teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions,” Bookbinder said. “We have seen educators across the state fight back in recent months and years … and it’s necessary that we all stand together with educators so that they can continue to do that.”

Right now, teachers are on strike in Newton as they negotiate a contract, joining four other unions that have gone on strike over the last two years.

At the meeting, Reynolds noted he wore a blue and red shirt — red for Hampshire Regional, and blue for Newton — to stand in solidarity.

In a phone call, Reynolds did not answer whether the union is considering a strike.

“Strikes are illegal,” is all he said.

Morale has ‘nose-dived’

Jacob Masenior is a science teacher with a 23-year background in the classroom, the last three of them at Hampshire Regional High.

“When I first started here, I was literally walking on cloud nine, had a giant smile on my face on a daily basis, and I was convinced that I had found my home until retirement,” Masenior said. “The last couple of months, it’s become a little bit of a different place, and I think there’s been a lot of irreparable harm and damage done to our community.”

Masenior, who now works a couple of part-time jobs in addition to teaching, said that in recent months, morale has “nose-dived.”

A survey conducted by the union in October, with 77 respondents, found that 52% of teachers in the district have a second job, 66% are considering leaving, and 29% are actively looking for another job.

“I am a highly qualified educator, and it kind of hurts. And it feels a little bit humiliating to have to grovel for what feels like a cost of living adjustment,” Masenior said.

Matthew Geertsma, a former teacher who resigned at the end of last year for a new career, said that “one of the biggest, maybe the deciding factor” in his decision to leave was the contract situation.

“The job I’m currently working at would also be considered a challenging job … Challenging though it is, I have not yet come home as utterly spent physically and emotionally as I did on an almost daily basis as a teacher,” Geertsma said, adding that in his new job, he no longer works weekends grading like he did as a teacher.

History teacher Kirsti Morse spoke about her experience using maternity leave last year, when she had to consciously bank sick days even before becoming pregnant in order to accrue enough days off

“To put it bluntly, I grew a human, had major surgery when she was born, and I was worrying if I had enough sick days over seven years in order to maintain somewhat of a paycheck,” Morse said.

“Despite having been a faithful employee who has worked tirelessly to advance my education in order to increase my pay, I would have to seriously consider before having another child if I could afford it … because I would need to restore my depleted bank of sick days in order to receive a paycheck for maternity leave,” she said.

Students and parents at the meeting spoke to the quality of education provided by the teachers at Hampshire Regional, along with residents with no direct connection to the schools.

“This is not just about parents. This is not just about students. This is our future,” said Lynn Rowan, a Goshen resident. “We don’t want the future of all of us, even those of us who don’t have kids, to be in the hands of people who are so burned out because they’re doing other jobs that they can’t take care of the youth of our future.”

Goshen resident Karen DiFranza added, “As a taxpayer, it’s infuriating that our money is not going to the people who can really utilize it and make a contribution to our society.”

Attendees at the event were encouraged to send letters and emails to School Committee members and town officials.

By the end of the meeting, over 700 letters had been sent through the platform Action Network, and by Friday afternoon, nearly 2,500 letters were sent.

Maddie Fabian can be reached at mfabian@gazettenet.com.