Working With Your School Committee:
A Student Guide
Section Seven: Special Issues
Contract Negotiations and Collective Bargaining
Contracts establishing terms of employment between school employees and the school committee are renewed every few years. Copies of these contracts are public documents and can be obtained from the secretary to the school committee or through personnel in the superintendent's office. When contracts are renewed, all school employees who are unionized and their respective school committee engage in a process called "collective bargaining." In collective bargaining employee groups, through representatives and as a single unit, negotiate their contracts.
Provisions of teachers' contracts are probably of most interest to students. Besides salary and the length of school day and school year, teachers' contracts may address other terms of employment such as sabbatical leave, inservice training, seniority during reduction in force, supervisory duties, extracurricular assignments, class size, course load and number of paid vacation and sick days. The resolution of many of these issues affects the quality of the academic program as well as the breadth of extracurricular offerings.
Since contract negotiations generally take about a year, negotiations or contract "talks" generally begin approximately one year prior to the expiration of the contracts in effect. As a member of SAC to SC you can familiarize yourself with contract provisions affecting students, you can help to determine what position, if any, students wish to take. Prior to the inception of negotiations, you can talk with spokespeople from the school committee and the employees' group to make student concerns known, and you can talk to a member of your community experienced in labor relations about the process.
Contract negotiations do not always proceed smoothly. Sometimes, if teachers perceive that contract negotiations are proceeding too slowly, or if they are convinced that the school committee is not "acting in good faith," they will "work to rule." Work to rule means that teachers do only what is specifically required of them under the contract. Often this means that teachers will be on duty only for those hours specified in the contract; in other words they may not choose to stay beyond the regular "school day."
If contract negotiations break down even further and it seems as though the two sides will be unable to reach agreement even if discussions continue, generally an "impasse" is declared. In declaring an impasse, both sides usually agree to submit to "arbitration," a process to continues discussion with an objective observer.
Sometimes if an impasse is declared, teachers may be convinced that they have no recourse other than to strike. Teacher strikes are illegal, and in the rare instance that the union strikes, union leaders do so with full knowledge that they may be fined, imprisoned or both.
Most negotiating sessions will take place in "executive session." The State Open Meeting Law (MGL Chapter 39, Section 23B) permits closed or executive sessions for the purpose of "discussing strategy with respect to collective bargaining." If discussions are closed, the student school committee member is not entitled by law to attend. Permission can be sought but SAC to SC members probably will not be invited to attend. Without viewing the sessions, it will be very difficult to accurately assess the progress of negotiations. You should make a concerted effort to balance the school committee's perceptions with those of the union. Talk with representatives from both sides, then present other students with a balanced view of the issues. Although you may not actually be involved in the discussions, your opinions and concerns can be made in proposal form to be considered during executive session.
SAC to SC's Role in Student Discipline Hearings
Sometimes a student may have an expulsion hearing with the school committee for alleged misconduct (MGL Chapter 76, Section 17). Because it is considering the discipline of a student, the school committee may choose to close the meeting from the public through executive session, or they may ask the student and his/her parents to request executive session. In either case, SAC to SC members may not be present in executive session unless they are invited to do so by the committee. Ask the student and his/her family if they want a SAC to SC member present at the hearing. If they say yes, advise them to request an open meeting rather than an executive session, and then other people, including the SAC to SC, may observe. Although the SAC to SC may not be present for the hearing in executive session, you can be an information resource to these students if you know:
- The contents of your school handbook
- The rules and consequences
- The protections afforded to students
MGL Chapter 71, Sections 37H and 37h1/2 authorize the principal to expell a student for certain serious offenses. In appealing a suspension or expulsion, there may be a hearing where the student's side can be presented. This is known as due process as protected by the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Generally accepted due process guidelines are:
- written notice of the charges;
- the right to be represented by a lawyer or another person acting on the student's behalf;
- adequate time to prepare for the hearing;
- the right to cross-examine witnesses; and
- a reasonably prompt written decision including specific grounds for the decision.
Student Rights and Responsibilities
Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 71, Sections 82-86 (complete text included in Appendix Three), guarantee certain student rights and explain the purpose of school rules. These sections provide student rights without interfering with the right of school officials to manage and conduct an orderly school system. The rights addressed include First Amendment freedom of expression, dress codes, discipline (not connected to school sponsored activities) and student input on these rules.
Section 82 provides students from public secondary schools in the Commonwealth both individually and collectively the freedom of expression through a) speech and symbol, b) to write, publish and disseminate their views and c) to assemble peaceably on school property for the purpose of expressing their opinions.
Section 83 provides students the right to freedom from restrictions on their appearance, limited only by health, safety, cleanliness, and substantial disruption of the educational process.
Section 84 prohibits any form of discipline (including but not limited to suspension and expulsion) on account of marriage, pregnancy, parenthood or for conduct not connected with any school sponsored activities.
Section 85 provides an opportunity for student input regarding the adoption of rules and regulations related to the above sections.
Section 86 is generally known as a "logical option" clause. Although, many of the rights addressed in these statues are also protected by state and federal constitutional guarantees, cities/towns may demonstrate their support for these rights by adopting sections 83-85.
Another initial project for your SAC to SC could be using a state law to help with innovative curriculum. Chapter 71, Section 13 (Ch. 215 of the Acts of 1972), provides a way for parents and students to request that certain courses be added to your school's curriculum. Any course may be added, from sex education to art history, depending upon what students and parents want. The SAC to SC may present the requests to the school committee and lobby its members so that the courses will be added. All courses must have the approval of two thirds of the school committee. While the deadline listed in the law is August, most schools have their courses set long before that time. Complete the petitions and presentations by early spring of the year before the year that the course will be offered.
We hope you have found some helpful information in this guide and are inspired to work with your school committee. If you need more help, you should contact the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education or one of the other organizations listed in Appendix One. You may request that a workshop be made available. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education can provide you with the names of other SAC to SC members in neighboring towns. You should contact your counterparts in other places and share experiences, provide and gain support and plan joint projects. You should take advantage of the structure and use your position wisely. And when you think you have learned something about to be an effective SAC to SC member, you should pass that on to new members! Good Luck!
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