During the longest Massachusetts teachers strike in three decades, Anna Nolin, the new superintendent of Newton Public Schools, blasted Metallica on her commute each morning to amp herself up for another tense day of talks.
Meanwhile, after days of fruitless haggling, Mike Zilles, president of the Newton Teachers Association, and Chris Brezski, the School Committee chairperson, secretly met up in a nearby graveyard in hopes of reaching detente.
“The fact that we were going to be doing this again the next day was just exhausting and frustrating,” Nolin later recalled.
The teachers strike, which ended Feb. 2, gripped the well-to-do city of Newton in a crisis, locking educators and their employers in a fierce 15-day battle that pitted neighbor against neighbor, cost children hours of lost class time, and raised questions about the future of public education funding in Massachusetts.
Behind the scenes, the parties worked furiously around the clock to settle, key players told the Globe in extensive interviews last week. But acrimony had been ratcheting up for months, and both sides, strained by economic circumstances, were determined to hold their ground.
Nolin came to the district in July with more than two decades of experience working in MetroWest schools. A onetime teachers union member herself in Framingham, she had personally helped negotiate nearly three dozen teachers’ contracts.
But none of that had prepared Nolin for the events that unfurled in Newton.
“I was flabbergasted from the first minute of it, to be honest,” she said.
Nolin had visited Zilles at his Newtonville office for her very first meeting as superintendent. She knew that Zilles and her predecessor, David Fleishman, the current superintendent of Wayland Public Schools, had had a difficult relationship. The men hadn’t been on speaking terms, Nolin said Fleishman told her, for several years. Nolin was determined to renew union-district relations.
Zilles had other priorities. The pandemic had destabilized the nation’s education system. Students were returning to the classroom academically behind and emotionally dysregulated. And teachers were burned out, having endured the shifting terrains of remote, hybrid, and in-person learning and the rancorous debates around school reopenings.
They had also lost their earning power. Under the terms of the three-year contract that the NTA had negotiated with the School Committee in 2019, teachers’ salaries had increased 12 percent, but inflation had risen 15 percent over the same period.
The NTA contract was set to expire at the start of the 2023 school year, and Newton teachers had a history of returning to school without an agreement in place. Zilles wanted a deal before school started, but the School Committee balked at the three-year 16.75 percent cost-of-living hikes the union suggested, an offer Zilles said was meant to demonstrate the inflationary pressures teachers were facing.
“They presented to us the limitations of their budget. We said, ‘These are the limitations that have been placed on our members’ budgets,’ ” Zilles said. “The question here is, who’s going to shoulder these costs of inflation?”
Recent city deficits were already forcing the district to lay off teachers and cut some high school electives. The city asked voters to pass an override in the spring that would increase property taxes and bolster the schools’ budget, though not enough to pay for the raises that teachers wanted.
“What they wanted was something that there was no math in the world where you could ever make that work,” said Brezski, who became chairperson of the School Committee in January.
Newton voters rejected the tax increase in March. When both sides returned to the bargaining table in April, the School Committee offered employees still moving up the salary scale a 4.8 percent cost-of-living adjustment spread out over three years, on top of their annual 4.2 percent raises.
To the NTA, this was unacceptable when other districts were settling contracts with 3 percent yearly cost-of-living increases or higher.
But Brezski said School Committee members were worried about sustainability. Nonpersonnel expenses were growing. If the School Committee agreed to higher salary hikes, there would be nothing left to cut but more staff.
“It was a trade-off,” Brezski said, “number of people versus how much they’re paid. It was very simple math.”
On July 20, the School Committee declared an impasse and announced its intention to file a petition with the Department of Labor Relations for mediation. Teachers strikes are illegal in Massachusetts, but talk of a work stoppage was brewing. In December, more than 99 percent of union members cast a vote of “no confidence” in Mayor Ruthanne Fuller and the School Committee.
Although both parties had inched toward compromise in their wage hike proposals and made tentative agreements on some issues, they were miles apart on others, like health care and family leave. The teachers also wanted a provision in the contract ensuring a social worker in every school, which the School Committee opposed on the grounds that it would lock the district into staffing them even if student needs changed.
In December, Brezski went to the mayor, who agreed to dedicate more money for the schools’ budget from the city’s surplus, so the committee could offer teachers higher cost-of-living adjustments. But it wasn’t enough.
The sides met for a mediation on Jan. 8. The union voted to go on an illegal strike 10 days later.
During the 15-day strike, the sides moved into separate rooms in the district’s administrative offices at the Newton Education Center. The union operated out of the building’s basement, while the School Committee worked out of the administrative offices on the second floor.
The district’s negotiators included Brezski; two other School Committee members, Paul Levy (who attended remotely) and Tamika Olszewski; and former member Kathleen Shields, who had been bargaining with the union for months. Several district officials, including Nolin, joined them, as well as Elizabeth Valerio, an outside attorney with experience representing cities in negotiations with unions.
The union had a core negotiation team of about 20 members, plus leaders from the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and scores more silent observers who were initially present when the negotiators met in Room 210 for tense face-to-face discussions. A state mediator shuttled between the two groups with hard-copy proposals in hand.
The negotiations grew so fraught that days passed where both sides wouldn’t meet in person.
The groups couldn’t even agree on basic rules of engagement: What were Newton’s comparable districts? What information should be released to the public about the bargaining process? At what point are the parties no longer allowed to bring new issues to the bargaining table?
“It created this mistrust in the community and among our staff and among each other,” Nolin said. “That was the biggest tragedy of all of this.”
She felt stuck in the middle. The teachers were her colleagues. The members of the School Committee were her bosses. Whatever deal was struck would be her responsibility to enact.
Negotiators worked late into the night, reviewing the other side’s proposals and tinkering with their own. Much of the time was spent waiting — for hours — for a response from the other party. In the middle of the second week of negotiations, the School Committee came back to the union with its best offer yet: It included the same cost-of-living increases the committee had offered in December, but with an additional fourth year in the contract. About a day later, the union announced it would accept that part of the deal — the biggest sticking point in the negotiations.
“Honestly, I could have cried right then,” Nolin said.
This was the beginning of the end.
But by then, many residents had begun to turn on the striking teachers, with irate parents protesting at the union’s press conferences outside the education center. Although Zilles said the NTA’s negotiators were insulated from outside criticism, members couldn’t stomach a third week on strike.
And the union had gotten some of what it wanted, including a better parental leave policy and more competitive pay for paraprofessionals, its lowest-paid members.
Negotiators stayed late Thursday night, caucusing in small groups across the building, hashing out other parts of the contract and a return to work agreement, before departing at dawn on Friday, with only a few final details to work out. By 8:15 p.m. Friday, Zilles, Nolin, and Brezski were signing the deal.
The union celebrated with a lively press conference that evening outside the education center, banging drums and singing “We Shall Overcome” and “This Little Light of Mine” while members waved their cellphones in the air like lighters at a rock concert.
“We got a contract that we wouldn’t have gotten without the strike,” Zilles said.
The School Committee chairperson watched the NTA’s celebration from a conference room upstairs, relieved that the strike was over. But Brezski, who has two children in the school system, was uneasy.
What had the strike accomplished, he wondered? How would he face his kids’ teachers after this?
More than a week later, the anger in the community is still palpable. Parents and teachers feel betrayed.
“There’s no winners in this thing,” he said. “Everyone’s a loser.”
John Hilliard of the Globe staff contributed to this report.