Protesting LEA educators
A couple dozen educators protested outside the School Committee meeting room at the Central Administration Building prior to Tuesday's budget hearing and meeting. (Sophie Culpepper / LexObserver)

For nearly a year, the Lexington School Committee and the Lexington Education Association have been negotiating a new contract. During Tuesday’s School Committee meeting and budget hearing, more than 20 educators criticized the district’s proposed FY24 budget as failing to adequately meet student and teacher needs during opportunities for public comment in the standing-room-only School Committee meeting room.

Educators called on the School Committee to revise or even reject the FY24 recommended budget put forward by Superintendent Julie Hackett. Specifically, they asked for a budget that provided higher pay for teachers, decreased student case loads – especially for some high school educators and special education teachers – and retained elementary half-days instead of establishing a full five-day K-5 school week in order to implement a planned elementary world language program.

Both school and municipal leaders have already faced compounding financial challenges to crafting balanced FY24 budgets while also saving for an anticipated new or renovated high school that is likely to cost the Town hundreds of millions of dollars. Throughout the school budgeting process, Hackett has repeatedly emphasized the district’s need for adequate resources to support its special education students in the FY24 budget.

“There are no further adjustments being made to the FY24 budget,” Hackett wrote in an email to LexObserver Friday morning.

On Tuesday, Lexington Education Association President Avon Lewis said that the proposed budget did not satisfy School Committee’s own FY24 budget guidelines, including ensuring the safety, security and emotional well-being of students, because it did not provide for adequate student mental health support and staff training.

“We need more mental health and behavioral supports for all students; we need training for all staff; we need to stop the onslaught of new stuff that we are directed to squeeze in,” Lewis said, reiterating points she made at the previous budget hearing two weeks ago.

“Lexington has the money to do right by the kids we have now,” she added, referencing funds the Town continues to set aside in its Capital Stabilization Fund under its long-term fiscal strategy intended to ease the burden on taxpayers of paying for a new or renovated high school. “The students we have right now should not be asked to pay for a building they may never experience.” (The School Committee does not control the Capital Stabilization Fund.)

A few educators described personal struggles to make ends meet on LPS salaries.

LHS English teacher Abigail Chaffer said she was calling in from her second job to speak in favor of increased pay. “I’m unable to live within my salary as is at Lexington Public Schools” even after six years working there as an educator with a master’s degree, she said.

“After paying what it costs to live close enough to commute to Lexington; after paying for a car to drive to Lexington; after paying for additional schooling and credits to maintain my licensure in Lexington; after paying for out-of-network therapists to address [my struggles from working in Lexington]; and after paying the student loans that I took out to be able to work in Lexington; after all of that, I still can’t get through the month without borrowing from Peter to pay Paul,” Chaffer said. “This is so upsetting and embarrassing; what kind of life am I living?”

Amy-Jo Conant, a librarian and teacher at Fiske, said she no longer baked her favorite three-tiered cake because baking with six eggs felt like a “pricey cake; that’s half my eggs.” 

From a table at the front of the crowded meeting room, School Committee members and Hackett listened closely to each emotional comment and entreaty for additional support, sometimes applauding speakers along with members of the public even after comments chastising the committee and school administration. 

School Committee members do not typically respond directly to public comments, but on Tuesday, member Larry Freeman read a statement on behalf of the School Committee addressing the status of contract negotiations, which the committee also circulated to the school community on Wednesday. 

“We do appreciate you all coming out; we appreciate you taking time away from your families and letting your voices be heard, and…my colleagues and I definitely all agree that you deserve to hear something from the committee,” Freeman said. 

In the statement, the School Committee pointed out that factors including inflation, a national labor shortage and ongoing pandemic effects have led to disputes between school leadership and educators in districts throughout the state, including in Malden, Melrose and Brookline.

“We love our teachers, and we have deep respect for the work they do on behalf of our children,” the School Committee wrote. Members wrote that they hope to negotiate a fair contract for all parties “in the near future.” 

If bargaining reaches an impasse – which can be declared by either party or mutually agreed upon – the state would appoint a mediator to advance negotiations. The School Committee wrote that they hope to reach an agreement about a contract “prior to any involvement by the State due to impasse.”

School Committee members also specifically addressed educator pay in Lexington. According to the committee’s statement, full-time educators at Lexington Public Schools are paid an average salary of $94,313.

Lewis commented that according to the MIT living wage calculator, a family with one child living in Middlesex County needs an income of $96,465 to cover expenses. “That means that approximately half of our staff are not making a Middlesex County living wage,” she said. “I am lucky to be on the other side of that, but…an awful lot of my colleagues who have…master’s degrees, who work very hard, do not make enough to make ends meet.”

Beyond pay, several educators asked the School Committee to lower its class cap for some subjects, including math and history, from 125 students across five classes to 100 students across four classes. Educators have been asking the School Committee to make this change for a few months

Some educators carried signs specifically calling for a cap of four classes and 100 students, as opposed to five classes and 125 students, at Lexington High School. (Sophie Culpepper / LexObserver)

Laura Sheppard-Brick, a Lexington High School math teacher, read a statement on behalf of Kyle Virgin, the husband of one of her colleagues. “I watch my wife spend hours every night treating each of her students with care,” Virgin wrote. “As a partner in her family, I ask you to change the maximum [number of classes] a math teacher teaches to four classes.” 

Superintendent Hackett has said that “in order to do that, it would take an additional 30-something full-time equivalents to fix the problem,” as previously reported. “The demand is enormous, and the budget is what it is.”

At the previous budget summit, Lewis criticized Hackett’s plan to use pandemic relief funding to reestablish Lexington’s elementary world language program. Lewis suggested the funding could be better spent on other resources and that creating a five-day elementary schedule would deprive educators of valuable collaborative time on Friday afternoons – a concern many elementary educators raised again on Tuesday. Hackett has said the program would give all young students more time in school with the goal of addressing pandemic impacts and socio-emotional learning delays for a significant contingent of the LPS population. She also said that running elementary world language classes would actually “protect the collaborative time of teachers” by freeing up other educators to meet together while students are in their language specials.

During Tuesday’s meeting, a few parents spoke up in support of educators, with some specifically expressing support for retaining elementary half-day Fridays and echoing the concern that teachers would lose collaborative time under the five-day schedule.

Fay Chen, whose son is enrolled in a special education program at Fiske Elementary School, said she had heard two of her son’s teachers speak out during Tuesday’s meeting. “It breaks my heart to hear how they will have a very difficult time collaborating with one another if the half-day on Friday is taken away,” she said. “It brings me deep concerns as a parent of a special needs child that my son’s teachers and therapists will not be able to have that time to collaborate with one another.”

Additionally, from a parent perspective, Chen said that she and some other special education parents use Friday afternoons for outside therapy, and were concerned about how challenging it would be to find another therapy slot given long waitlists for such services.

Taylor Singh, a Town Meeting Member (Precinct 6) and special education parent, asked the School Committee to listen to educators’ appeals, including to prioritize collaborative planning time for special education teachers over a new elementary world language program. “As a parent with a child in special education, I am grateful for their advocacy on behalf of our kids,” she said. “Parents need you to cover baseline services, such as having the support staff our children require to learn to read, write, calculate and overcome emotional distress.”

But Singh also acknowledged the challenges of serving as a School Committee member. “As evidenced by this year’s uncontested election, no one wants your jobs,” she noted, prompting some laughs.

While these contract negotiations remain unresolved, at Tuesday’s meeting, the School Committee unanimously voted to ratify a one-year memorandum of agreement with the LEA governing substitutions for absent staff and unfilled vacancies. The one-year contract also included five additional sick days for any LEA member who runs out of sick days before the end of the year, “with the possibility of an additional [five] days to be handled on a case-by-case basis.” LEA members had advocated for additional COVID sick leave at a School Committee meeting a few months ago.

“This gets us over the hump until we have a contract in place,” Hackett said, thanking Lewis and the LEA for their collaboration on this MOA. 

Lewis spontaneously thanked the committee for their vote on this contract in additional public comments at the end of the meeting. “That’s the process we want to see happen,” she said. “There was a conversation, we worked things out, and both parties voted on an agreement. I really appreciated that that process worked in this case…I hope we continue to aspire to that.”