WESTFORD — Nearly 200 members of the Westford Education Association, the union representing Westford Public Schools educators and nurses, stood out ahead of Annual Town Meeting for higher wages.
Union contracts for Westford Educators are up for renewal by June 30, 2023. The contract for staff under Unit E, which represents teaching assistants, expired on June 30, 2022. Pay for teaching assistants tops out at $25,000 per year under the current contract.
Contract negotiations ongoing
A new contract has not been adopted between Unit E and the School Committee at the time of reporting.
“They need better and deserve better,” Westford Education Association President Kristine Jussaume told WestfordCAT.
She continued, “They [Unit E] have an immediate impact on our students. They are not only helping with the curriculum, but they are also helping them manage their emotions during the day.”
Jussaume, who teaches fourth grade at the Norman E. Day School, noted that even with current raises offered by the town, she believes salaries remain uncompetitive and hurt schools’ ability to provide consistent, high-quality education.
“[What] the town is offering Unit A and Unit C, it still keeps us 5% below average and people are unhappy with the percentage offered,” she said.
Receiving smaller cost of living adjustments also impacts faculty retirement savings. Future retirement savings is based on the average of a teacher’s last three years of salary.
“If the COLA adjustments do not get us to our peers’ average salaries (Wellesley, Needham, etc.), we are at a disadvantage compared to them and will not take home as much as them in our pension payments,” Janet Fonden, an English teacher at Westford Academy, told WestfordCAT.
Program cuts and unpaid time
Additionally, teachers, who start work on their classrooms before students begin their year, are unpaid for their time over the summer.
“We do not get paid for anything that we do on our own time over the summer: setting up classrooms, curriculum planning, or writing college recommendations to name a few,” representatives of WEA told WestfordCAT in an email.
During the 2021 fiscal year, the town spent approximately $16,256 per student in Westford Public Schools. Comparable districts, including Natick, Arlington, Milton and Wellesley spent an average of $2,200 more per student within their districts.
Westford Public Schools received $64,038,192 in the fiscal 2023 budget and was approved for a 2.89% increase in the fiscal 2024 budget, with the town allocating $65,889,564 toward its schools.
Even with an increase in spending from the town, a number of budget cuts have been made in student programs. Programs such as the Pre-First program, where kindergartners could spend another year before moving up a grade level and The Living Lab, a local field trip for elementary school students, no longer exist.
Additionally, teaching assistants were removed from non-inclusion classrooms for K-5 students.
Supply budgets have been reduced for faculty, where once teachers were given a $900 stipend to decorate their classrooms, that figure has been reduced to $300.
“We believe in our teachers and need proper funding for our school and students,” Jason Fligg, a fourth grade teacher at the Day School told WestfordCAT. “We are united as a group and we wants what’s best for every student in Westford and are willing to stand up for it.
District leadership remains supportive of union
Despite this, WEA members note that district leadership has been supportive.
“The School Committee is on our side. Our superintendent is on our side. But they keep saying we don’t have the money,” said WEA Vice President Heidi Hider.
Members of the School Committee spoke with union members ahead of the Annual Town Meeting.
“It’s always great to see our teachers. I did get a chance to stop and chat with several of them and look forward to continuing to work with them to keep our schools strong,” School Committee Chair Chris Sanders told WestfordCAT.
The School Committee submitted a statement to WestfordCAT on March 27 for publication with further information on active contract negotiations.
Staff Writer Aubrey Benoit contributed to the reporting of this article.