2020-11-13-PHSREMOTE

The United Educators of Pittsfield and the School Committee are at odds over steps to return to hybrid instruction. 

PITTSFIELD — The United Educators of Pittsfield and the school district remain at loggerheads.

On Monday, the union’s executive board sent a letter to the School Committee accusing members of violating an agreement stuck between the district and union by voting Jan. 27 to begin phasing students back to hybrid learning the following Monday.

The executive board wrote that it “will be availing itself of all appropriate contractual and legal remedies within its purview” in response, and will no longer be participating in weekly negotiation sessions.

The letter also accused the committee of unlawfully deliberating in executive session at the body’s Jan. 27 meeting.

On Tuesday, UEP President Melissa Campbell lodged an Open Meeting Law complaint against the committee, according to a copy of the complaint she provided. The complaint alleged the committee intentionally met in executive session to avoid having the UEP catching wind of the committee’s plans.

After the session, members reconvened in public, and voted unanimously to begin returning students to classrooms part time for hybrid learning.

The union complaint says that the committee’s action "appears intentional because these votes violate the terms of a collectively bargained Memorandum of Agreement ...." It alleges the committee hoped to avoid alerting the union of its plan.

As relief, Campbell asked that the committee rescind two votes that paved the way for vocational and some special education students to return to classrooms.

Negotiations occur in public unless one party requests they be held in executive session, said School Committee member Bill Cameron. He said he was open to holding future negotiations publicly.

“Perhaps in the future all the bargaining ought to take place in open session,” he said. “I think the public would be well served by having open negotiations.”

Support our journalism. Subscribe today. →

At issue is language in an agreement reached between the UEP and the district, which the union said tied public health benchmarks to the ability to reopen schools.

The union said the committee on Jan. 27 rejected a “tentatively agreed to” proposal for new benchmarks that would have to be met before returning career, technical and vocational students to classrooms. The committee, the UEP said, then “unilaterally overturn[ed]” the benchmarks altogether, and directed the interim superintendent to make sure students begin returning to hybrid learning the following Monday.

Cameron said the parties are interpreting the agreement differently, and that the school committee did not violate the document. The agreement was signed in November, said Campbell, after months of negotiations and after students transitioned to hybrid learning in the fall.

The district reverted to remote learning Nov. 13 as coronavirus infections surged locally.

School Committee members have expressed frustration at the pace of negotiations and Mayor Linda Tyer said negotiations had stalled. Campbell said that was news to her, and she was blindsided when the committee moved ahead, instead of offering a counterproposal about substantially separate special education students, as the union expected.

The committee voted to return some special education students to classrooms the week before February break, which Campbell said will create a disruption.

“A lot of those kids need routine, and when you change their routine it’s disruptive to them,” she said. “Those are the conversations that we expected to happen.”

Committee members said they had to act in the best interest of children, who are experiencing academic and emotional setbacks the longer they remain out of classrooms. They said they could wait no longer to get vocational students back into shops, with most vocational schools in the state functioning in a hybrid learning model, and students here facing graduation and certificate requirements that require hands-on instruction.

The UEP executive board said the committee’s actions were “taken in bad faith,” and have “fractured the relationship between the UEP and the Committee which has been built over the last decade.”

This story will be updated.

Amanda Burke can be reached at aburke@berkshireeagle.com, on Twitter @amandaburkec and 413-496-6296.

Amanda Burke covers Pittsfield City Hall for The Berkshire Eagle. An Ithaca, New York native, she previously worked at The Herald News of Fall River and the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise.