Educators protest low wages, high health care costs at School Committee meeting

Oct 8, 2019

Teachers and school staff who have been working without a contract since the end of August brought their frustrations with educators' pay and health care costs directly to the School Committee. 

At the Committee’s October 7 meeting, nearly 200 protesters crammed into the meeting room and adjoining hallways with signs reading “TA pay = poverty pay,” “All workers deserve living wages,” and “Could you live on $154.00 a week take-home?”

The demonstration was due to growing frustrations with ongoing contract negotiations between the School Committee and the union representing teachers, teaching assistants, secretaries, and school nurses. Contracts expired August 31 after negotiations in the spring and summer stalled.

According to President of the Dartmouth Educators Association Renee Vieira, the core issue is that staff pay is not keeping up with rising health insurance costs ⁠— particularly when employees are expected to cough up 48 percent of the bills, while the town covers 52 percent.

As of May 2019, costs ranged from $103.20 to $382.37 a week depending on the plan and whether the coverage is for individuals or families. The town’s rates are among the highest in the region.

Although the issue was not on the agenda for Monday’s School Committee meeting, protesters showed up in force to support the union in ongoing negotiations.

Vieira spoke during a public comment period at the start of the meeting, calling the proportion of insurance costs paid by employees “astronomical.”

“I’ve been in this district for 23 years now,” she noted. “I am a teacher. I have a very good salary… But when my health care goes up ⁠— $1,000 last year and $500 this year ⁠— I need a [Cost of Living Adjustment] that’s going to at least allow me to make ends meet.”

Vieira continued, “If I’m bringing home less this year than I did last year, can you please just imagine what it’s doing to the teaching assistants in this town, to the secretaries.”

“We all love the town that we work in. But we really need to be able to afford to work in this town,” she finished to resounding cheers.

Many of those on the committee showed sympathy with the protesters.

Chris Oliver, Vice Chair of the committee, thanked Vieira for presenting her concerns.

“I think they are justified with the health insurance piece,” Oliver said. 

However, he added, “Some of the signs personally bothered me, that we’re not doing anything or that we’re being disrespectful to the teachers.”

Oliver asked those present to reach out to the administration or committee members with any questions. 

“I don’t think any of us are unreasonable, and I would always love to sit down and entertain a conversation,” he said.

School Committee Chair Kathleen Amaral agreed.

“The teachers do an amazing job,” she said after the meeting. “They are really so committed and invested. And we’re up against this reality of trying to figure it out with the budget.”

“We get it,” she added. “That insurance split is ridiculous.”

There are other sticking points the union is seeking to address. Vieira said union members are still waiting for the administration to sign a memorandum of understanding on schedule changes at the high school this year. 

Drawn-out negotiations are not unusual for Dartmouth teachers, however. Teachers were working without new contracts for nearly the entire 2016-2017 school year and had to enter mediation. The contract was signed in June 2017 after dragging on for nearly two years.

Negotiations were set to continue on Tuesday afternoon.