You will usually find Bethany Fitzsimmons in a second-grade classroom at the working one-on-one with students with special needs.
"I love my work," said the Watertown resident who has spent more than a decade working in the
On Tuesday afternoon, June 5, Fitzsimmons was not in the classroom but standing with supporters of the 100 teacher aides, corridor monitors and instructional support staff – "the glue that keeps the system together," said Robert Antonellis, president of the union resenting Belmont's educators – who were placing a spotlight on their long-standing grievance.
"We only want to have them to sign a contract but right now the has its feet in the sand," said Fitzsimmons.
More than 100 Belmont Education Association members – the union representing teachers and staff in the Belmont School District – lined up on the sidewalk outside the back entrance to in an informational picket protesting the lack of progress in finalizing an agreement for their colleagues who have been working without a contract for a year.
And while the action was specific to the contract impasse to the Unit D paraprofessionals, officials said the School Committee's current stance does not bode well for future contract talks in 2014.
"If the BEA did not make concessions last year (during negotiating for the teacher's contract in 2011), we would have been on the picket line last September," said Antonellis outside to the educators holding signs.
The union agreed a year ago to cut scheduled annual pay hikes by a half and a quarter in the first two years of their current contract with the District.
"The School Committee told us last year, 'Thank you, thank you. We won't forget. We'll make it up.' The way they made it up was to increase medical (costs)," said Antonellis, referring to a decision by the Board of Selectmen earlier this year to require all town employees onto a designed health plan that requires members to pay for more of their health insurance, costing all municipalities workers approximately $1.2 million over three years.
"Their action also sends the message: is this what they want to be happening when the teachers are back at the table in two years time?" said Antonellis.
Tuesday's picket is the first public action by the BEA in 17 years since the 1995 teacher's strike, according to Antonellis.
"This is not an easy activity to undertake. It's not our normal mode of operation," Antonellis told Belmont Patch.
Before the School Committee, Antonellis said the union had attempted to begin negotiations in September 2010 but with little success.
Negotiations began in October but on April 9, the committee filed for mediation which the BEA objected to the move "because we felt we were close enough to carve out an agreement," said Antonellis.
"It's strictly salary," said Antonellis, noting that the two sides proposals are $37,000 apart in the amount of increase over the next two years.
Last month, the union proposed to cut the gap by reducing the unit by one position or by reducing pay to newly hired workers.
The BEA is proposing a flat payment of $100 to $200 in the first year and no increase for new hires in the second year. Full-time employees would receive 15 cent more an hour with each "step" increase – periodic increases in an employee's rate of basic pay for each step up the grade scale – which comes to $168.30 a year. Top-level educators – less than a third of the members in Unit D – will receive about $500 more a year.
"The raises they are proposing are ridicules," said Antonellis. "We don't think the School Committee appreciates and recognizes what this unit does."
He said the School Committee is holding fast to its March proposal.
Laurie Graham, chairwoman of the School Committee, read a statement saying that despite good faith bargaining "we have not been able to reach a resolution.
"[W]e certainly hope can come to an agreement and resolve this dispute in a professional and courteous manner," she noted.
Antonellis said the Unit D employees are paid the least of any BEA group – making $20,000 or less for full timers – and are most effected by the anticipated increase benefit payments beginning July 1.
"We know the town doesn't have the financial security they once had and this happens every year," said Fitzsimmons.
But insurance is going up, deductibles are going up, out-of-pocket costs are going up, she said.
"Most of the people in our unit are here for the long haul. It's nice to take care of these people who show all this dedication to the kids," said Fitzsimmons.
"We are only asking to pay us for that dedication."