DARTMOUTH - Members of the Dartmouth Educators Association, or DEA - the union representing an array of Dartmouth Public Schools' bargaining units including teachers, teaching assistants, nurses and others - have begun speaking out publicly this month, expressing dissatisfaction with certain aspects of working in the district that they hope will be mitigated in new three-year contracts currently being negotiated as staff continue under the terms of the previous one that expired Aug. 31.
A number of Dartmouth Public Schools' staff members, including teaching assistants, teachers, a nurse and registered behavior technician - representing separate bargaining units with respective contracts while belonging to a single union - have taken to the mic at the last two School Committee meetings this month to advocate for what they see as appropriate terms relative to the work they perform, and to illustrate how far off the status quo is from those terms.
"We know that you value the excellent work that the professionals at Bush Street do because they're compensated for it," said DeMello Elementary School teacher Jasmine Olean at the latest School Committee meeting on Nov. 21, referencing the district's Central Office location. "We are demanding a fair contract for all of our units - the nurses, the secretaries, the teaching assistants and teachers. Make Dartmouth competitive again."
Teaching assistants decry pay rates
"A living wage in Bristol County, according to the MIT calculator, is $29,827 per year," said Dartmouth Educators Association Vice President of Teaching Assistants Lauren Belliveau, a classroom teaching assistant at Quinn Elementary School, at the Nov. 7 School Committee meeting. "Dartmouth teaching assistants ... their salary range is between $19,000 and $26,000, roughly, meaning the starting salary for a Dartmouth TA (teaching assistant) is $10,000 a year below a living wage.
"The top step, after we've been working all these years ... we're still $3,000 below a living wage. Honestly, this salary range is absurd. We are not babysitters."
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Belliveau also noted that teaching assistants are pushing for a change in job title to "education support professional," or ESP. Teaching assistant and ESP positions are comparable to what many districts, including New Bedford Public Schools, label as paraprofessional positions.
Belliveau also noted difficulties in attracting new teaching assistants to Dartmouth, "because no one wants to work for peanuts," she said after running through a number of examples of Massachusetts districts that pay higher to teaching assistants and like-positions.
"Just in the last few months, we've lost four TAs, three of which were highly experienced: one left to be a food server at a local restaurant, one left to be a nanny, one left to go to Fairhaven where she's making $4 more an hour, and one looked at the job, stayed three weeks and went forget this - this isn't enough money - and she quit," she said.
Roseanne Amaral, a special education teaching assistant at Quinn Elementary School, outlined some of the challenges her work entails, including a need to be more understanding of abusive behaviors from students. "On a daily basis we could be getting hit, bit, kicked or verbally abused by students," she said. "If a typical student in a regular ed. classroom would hit or verbally abuse a teacher, he or she would be sent to the office and get a consequence. In our position, this happens to one [or] more of us daily. We do understand this is a delicate population we are working with but this responsibility should come with fair compensation."
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During her comments, Belliveau said trouble with attracting new teaching assistants "was particularly evident during the summer where the district was forced to fill ESP positions with outsiders through agencies or postings on Indeed and actually in some cases paying more than to our own TAs."
In an outside interview after the meeting, Belliveau told The Standard-Times that teaching assistants hired through job recruiting website Indeed.com specifically for summer school programming were making about $24 an hour, which she said was higher than the contracted rates of many permanent district teaching assistants. "It was a slap in the face and it caused friction...," she said.
Kelly Stowell, lead nurse for Dartmouth Public Schools, brought up similar concerns to the School Committee about summer work opportunities presented to nurses, suggesting they were offered a lower-than-regular pay rate. "Our worth, time and commitment shouldn't be valued less just because it's the summer," she said. "Consistency of care is a big part of school nursing and it isn't achieved when ... someone from outside the district comes in to care for our students, not to mention that they're compensated at a much higher rate … at summer school. This is a disservice to our students and their families and it's disheartening that we, your district nurses, are replaceable."
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The issue of health insurance
In his public comments to the School Committee, Jeff Reid, lead teacher of Dartmouth High School's social studies department, touted health insurance as a major roadblock in achieving fair wages.
"For the past 10 years as a lead teacher my stipend has not increased; as an athletic coach for about 10 years my stipend has not increased; but the biggest thing is the health insurance," Reid said. "Right now I'm currently paying $130 a week for the individual basic HMO plan. I was shocked to find out that some family plans, $324 a week."
Reid went on to say based on his research, it would appear the public school districts of New Bedford, Fall River, Fairhaven, Berkley, Swansea and Somerset all offered more affordable health insurance rates than Dartmouth.
The most recent contract between the Dartmouth Educators Association and district lists three types of plans employees can choose from for the following rates: PPO - 54% from employer/46% from employee; HMO - 54% from employer/46% from employee; and HMO High Deductible - 60% from employer/40% from employee. The document notes that health insurance plans are offered from the "Town of Dartmouth through the Dartmouth School Committee."
Outside of the meeting, Belliveau told The Standard-Times that health insurance rates have been a major point of contention between the union and district in negotiations so far, and that the district has suggested to union members that health insurance offerings for town employees - including employees of the school district - fall under the purview of the Select Board, not school officials. In addition to the past two School Committee meetings, union members could be seen at the last Select Board meeting on Nov. 14 holding signs that read "HEALTH CARE RELIEF," but none spoke to the matter publicly that evening.
"Our current contract does not provide information pertaining to the vast differences between a preschool teacher and any other elementary teacher," Cushman Elementary School preschool teacher Heidi Spicer said at the Nov. 21 School Committee meeting. "The preschool staff currently wears multiple hats. We are a general education teacher, we are a special education teacher despite the fact that 50% of the preschool staff are not licensed special education teachers. ... Our students are on many different educational levels."
Spicer noted additional duties performed by preschool teachers over other grade level teachers include adapting general lesson plans for special education students, writing IEPs (individualized education plans), facilitating evaluation processes, and "toileting and diapering of our special education students, which potentially could be up to seven students."
"This added duty is not seen anywhere for other teachers. For other bargaining units that do handle toileting and diapering needs, they receive a stipend as should any other unit who shares that added responsibility," she said. "We hope for a contract that will include preschool and the uniqueness of the position."
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Christine Coon, a registered behavior technician who works in both the Cushman and Quinn elementary schools, spoke on the sharp increase in the caseload those in her position have taken on since 2020.
"Ending June 2020, we had 10 students which accumulated to 49.5 hours. As of November 2022 we are now at 31 students, 129.5 hours," she said. "We are covering all these students and it continues to increase, plus all the data, the case work, the program management - it's all accumulating. So we just think that we deserve a little bit more with the increase and recognition of what we do."
Coon also noted that registered behavior technicians in the district must renew their professional certifications annually for a fee.
From the administration
"As with every negotiation the district makes every effort to negotiate in good faith and make the best offers we can while remaining within the budget," Superintendent Dr. Bonny Gifford wrote The Standard-Times in an email response. "We also work to ensure any proposed language changes do not negatively affect teaching and learning for our students and does not impede the districts' ability to operate effectively."
Gifford declined to address specific statements made by Dartmouth Educators Association members, noting the district's customary practice of confidentiality around ongoing negotiations.
According to Belliveau, the next negotiation session with the district on new contracts is set for Tuesday, Dec. 4.
What do Dartmouth Public School employees make? A quick look
According to the most recent contracts - still in effect until new ones are ratified - here is base pay range for the positions represented by Dartmouth Educators Association members who've recently spoken out publicly:
Teaching Assistants - $19,033.56 to $26,193.44 (Step 6, with Bachelor's)
School nurses - $50,487 to $91,804 (Step 11, with Doctorate)
Teachers - $50,487 to $91,804 (Step 11, with Doctorate)
Registered Behavior Technicians - $24,033.56 to $31,193.44 (Step 6, with Bachelor's.... Rates for this position are based on the Teaching Assistants pay rate plus a $5,000 stipend and belong to the same bargaining unit.)
This article originally appeared on Standard-Times: Dartmouth educators publicly voice gripes over pay and insurance rates