Hundreds protest New Bedford High School layoff plan

New Bedford rally 

A boisterous crowd of hundreds of educators, union activists and community supporters rallied on January 17 in support of New Bedford High School educators, many of whom could lose their jobs under a “turnaround” plan proposed by Superintendent Pia Durkin.

Lou St. John, president of the New Bedford Educators Association, fired up the crowd at the rally in front of New Bedford City Hall calling for a different way forward for the sake of students, educators, the schools and the community as a whole.
Lou St. John
NBEA President
Lou St. John

St. John said, “We suggest that instead of threatening our teachers with termination, Dr. Durkin, the mayor and the school committee should be trying to figure out how to improve working conditions and make this the kind of district where highly qualified educators want to work!”

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has designated New Bedford High School a Level 4 school. That designation triggers a requirement that the district adopt a school improvement strategy.

On December 16, Durkin announced that she had chosen a “turnaround” model under which the district will replace half the NBHS staff, regardless of their evaluations.  All staff will be required to reapply for their jobs, she said, and at least 50 percent will be gone next year. The reduction includes retirements and voluntary transfers, so no one knows at this point how many will be terminated or involuntarily transferred.

The MTA joined the NBEA and others in opposing the district’s decision to adopt the controversial turnaround model instead of the more collaborative “transformation” model.

In a letter to Durkin sent on January 8, MTA President Paul Toner and Vice President Tim Sullivan wrote, “The MTA strongly opposes school turnaround models that rely on the forced turnover of large numbers of staff. These strategies are disruptive to the lives of educators as well as to the students and communities they serve. The negative impact on the morale of educators in the district from such an action would greatly impair the district’s ability to attract and retain highly qualified educators in the future and would lead to an atmosphere of fear, anger, sadness and distrust for years to come.”

Many speakers at the rally echoed similar themes, calling for the district to work collaboratively with educators and their union.

Once Durkin notified the NBEA that she had picked the “turnaround” model, the union and district had just 30 days to bargain over the impact of those changes. Bargaining was challenging because the participants did not have the specifics of the proposal before them until just before the deadline.

Among other changes, the plan calls for more pay for staff to work a longer school day and participate in more professional development.

The two sides reached a tentative agreement on implementing the plan on January 15, right before the deadline.

“I believe our team did a good job of getting the best possible deal in these negotiations, but I still strongly believe that this was the wrong way to go and it will have a negative impact on morale for many years,” St. John said. Details of the tentative agreement will be shared with NBEA members before being made public.

The MTA and others emphasized the need to provide educators with support and a voice in helping to improve struggling schools. In the letter to Durkin, the MTA leaders said, “The MTA believes that a far better way to serve NBHS students is for organizations representing educators, administrators, parents, students, and business and community leaders to sit down together and work on a school improvement plan that:

  • Is based on a shared vision of success and interventions and strategies supported by solid educational research.
  • Provides consistent district and school-based leadership.
  • Builds on the strengths of the school and community.
  • Provides supports, resources and professional development where there are deficiencies."

Throughout the crisis, the NBEA has been given support by MTA staff in the field, legal, policy and communications divisions and by MTA’s elected leaders.

Several speakers at the rally also cited the lack of stability in the central office as contributing to the district’s problems. The district has had five superintendents over the past six years.

St. John, a New Bedford High School graduate, was among the speakers who praised the hard work of New Bedford educators.

“Last year my daughter, Kayla, graduated from New Bedford High School, and my son, Matthew, is in his sophomore year at New Bedford High School. I love my children, so I can assure you I wouldn’t be sending them to New Bedford High School if I didn’t think they would get a quality education from competent teachers there.”

“Be strong. Be vigilant. Have hope. And support your union when we ask you to take actions to defend your rights, your interests and the interests of the students we teach.”

- NBEA President Lou St. John

He also urged members of the NBEA to “stay strong” despite the challenges they face.

“Despite the climate of fear, hundreds of you have come out here today to stand up for your rights,” he said. “We need you to keep coming out, standing tall, and getting more and more of our members to join us in speaking out for ourselves and our fellow members.

“Be strong. Be vigilant. Have hope. And support your union when we ask you to take actions to defend your rights, your interests and the interests of the students we teach.”

 More rally photos are posted on the MTA's Flickr site.