The Chicopee Education Association had been engaged in a prolonged and sometimes bitter fight to settle a contract when members began organizing a march and rally for this fall to draw attention to the problems caused by a lack of funding for public education.
Throughout the summer, Chicopee educators — who had gone more than a year without a new contract — reached out to families and community leaders about attending a rally on Sept. 22. The event was intended to drive home the point that the city was spending barely above the foundation level — the level that the state determines represents “adequate spending” to meet the needs of students.
The CEA wanted the public to know that many surrounding communities were spending roughly 20 percent above their state-calculated foundation levels and that the formula used to determine adequate spending on education had become grossly outdated.
Then in mid-September, teachers — who comprise the largest unit of the CEA — reached a tentative agreement with the Chicopee School Committee.
So was the rally called off? No way!
“The march and rally were always about more than the contract,” said CEA President Laura Demakis.
Chicopee educators have been out front in their activism about school funding. The CEA was in the first wave of MTA locals asking their school committees to pass resolutions demanding that the state Legislature fully fund public education.
In 2015, the bipartisan Foundation Budget Review Commission determined that public schools in Massachusetts are underfunded by more than $1 billion annually because of the outdated formula used to determine foundation budgets. In the case of Chicopee, the schools are shorted $14.5 million annually.
More than 300 educators, parents, children and community leaders turned out for the march, which began at Chicopee High School and proceeded to Dupont Middle School, where a rally was held. MTA President Merrie Najimy and Vice President Max Page joined the event, as did Chicopee School Superintendent Richard Rege and citywide PTO President Sharon Deragon, both of whom were among the speakers.
The Chicopee action was part of a broader movement that is spreading throughout the area and the state. The MTA has launched a campaign called “Fund Our Future: Invest in the Schools and Colleges Our Communities Deserve” that is gaining steam in Massachusetts towns and cities in advance of the 2019-2020 legislative session.
In the weeks leading up to Sept. 22, members of MTA locals in Western Massachusetts formed a coalition — the Western Mass Educator Action Network, or WeMEAN — to strengthen and assist each other in the funding fight.
WeMEAN members wearing T-shirts from several surrounding locals were well represented at the rally. At tables, people filled out cards describing what they would like to see in their schools if the proper funding were available.
Union members collected the responses, which called for everything from increased staffing to basic school supplies. In the days ahead, CEA members plan to share the information culled from the hundreds of cards with legislators.
During the rally, Demakis fired up the crowd, declaring, “Educators know that we need the funding, the administration knows that we need the funding, the parents know that we need the funding, and the students know that we need the funding. The only ones who don’t seem to know are the people in charge of the funding!”
She described the lack of services available to meet the social and emotional needs of Chicopee students. She also decried the lack of technology available to students and the shortage of basic curriculum supplies.
She said that based on the current condition of the public schools, the city is not “creating a future — it is creating a road to disaster.”
Superintendent Rege said that he has never before seen such a crisis in education funding in the state, and he predicted that Massachusetts would lose its “best in the country” status within five years if the state continues to underfund public education.
Najimy further inspired the crowd at the rally, saying, “It’s our money, and we’re taking it back.”
She applauded the communitywide effort to advocate for public schools and assured the crowd that Chicopee “deserves excellence.”
“First we raise expectations, then we raise hell, and then we raise the money,” Najimy said.