Educators protest outside School Department as contract negotiations continue

Feb 9, 2023

A crowd of educators who have worked without a contract for half a year lined outside the School Department's Bush Street offices Thursday evening to let officials know they want a “fair contract” heading into the next academic year.

The demonstration was held amid the latest round of negotiations between the Dartmouth Educators Association — the union which represents school employees— and school officials, which has been taking place since before the latest contract expired last August.

“It’s just frustrating,” said Rachelle Lemieux, who teaches math at Dartmouth High. “Every time we’re up for a new contract we have to go through this.”

In a statement, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bonny Gifford said that school officials “have made very generous proposals both in language and monetarily.”

“We are confident a fair settlement will be reached soon,” she said.

Drawn-out negotiations are not unusual for Dartmouth teachers. Educators worked 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

According to Lemieux, a major reason for the lack of a new contract is due to disagreement over an issue that has arisen in previous years: rising health care costs and how those insurance bills are split.

Currently, the town covers 54% of the cost of health care bills, while teachers pay the remaining 46%. Costs ranged from $130.31 to $324.17 a week depending on the plan and whether the coverage is for individuals or families.

This rate, Lemieux said, is among the highest in the region.

According to recent contracts submitted to the state’s Department of Education, the split in communities such as Somerset, Fall River, New Bedford, and Freetown/Lakeville are at a 75% to 25% split.

Fairhaven, which comes closest to Dartmouth’s split, is at 60% to 40%. Only Westport has a higher rate for educators to pay with a 50-50 cut, the lowest a school district can go.

Since no new contract has been signed, educators continue to work under the 2019-approved split.

These costs, along with what educators say is a low salary, have been especially hard on teaching assistants.

One licensed practical nurse, who works one-on-one with a special needs student, said she takes home $364 a week and that another she knows makes only $156 a week.

“The take-home pay is shameful,” she said.

On average, educators say the annual salary for teaching assistants is $19,000 to $26,000 a year. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s wage calculator, a living wage in Bristol County is $29,827 per year.

Along with updating healthcare costs, Stephanie Sineiro, who works as an education support professional at Dartmouth Middle School, said she would like to see better assurances on work for paraprofessionals.

She said that paraprofessionals often do not know until the end of August if they will return for another school year.

“We need to know by the time the school year ends that we’ll still have a job in September,”  Sineiro said. “We currently live on ‘well, we hope we keep our job.’”

Dartmouth school staff were not alone in their demonstration, as educators from New Bedford also stopped by to lend support. 

Also attending the demonstration was Ray Medeirios, who works for the town’s Department of Public Works. He said it's important to show solidarity with fellow town employees — workers who use the same health plan as the DPW.

“Their fight is our fight,” he said.

A few students also stopped by the School Department’s Bush Street office to support the staff they say “deserve way more than a fair wage” for their work.

“When you think about it, [officials] are underpaying and not giving proper health care to the people that educate our growing society,” said Emma Carrier, a junior at Dartmouth High.

This story has been updated to include comment from Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bonny Gifford.