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Pittsfield Teachers Union Accuses School Committee of Open Meeting Violation
By Brittany Polito, iBerkshires Staff
08:36PM / Wednesday, February 03, 2021
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Local educators say they feel blindsided by the School Committee's vote last week to return to in-person hybrid learning. They are accusing the committee of privately debating and then approving the change.
 
The United Educators of Pittsfield has filed an Open Meeting Law complaint with the School Committee and the city clerk in relation to the Jan. 27 vote. 
 
Their complaint states the committee used an executive session during its regular meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 27, to deliberate the return of students. The committee and the UEP agreed to a memorandum of understanding detailing when and how instruction would occur during the pandemic at the start of the school year. 
 
"This deliberate effort to deny parents the information they need to make informed decisions about the health and welfare of their children is a clear violation of the state's Open Meeting Law," said Melissa Campbell, the president of the UEP.
 
On Jan. 27, the committee voted that career and vocational students Grades 10-12 would return to classrooms on Feb. 1; certain special education classes including Stearns first and second grade inclusions begin Monday, Feb. 8, and all other students return no sooner than the week of Feb. 22 "or as soon as realistically possible."
 
"The Committee unlawfully entered executive session, as these deliberations should have occurred in public session. It is important to note that the Committee's action appears intentional because these votes violate the terms of a collectively bargained Memorandum of Agreement with the United Educators of Pittsfield and likely did not want to alert the UEP and the public that it was planning to violate that MOA," states the complaint, which was filed with the Attorney General's Office.
 
However, the executive session actually took place on Wednesday, Jan. 20, during a special meeting of the School Committee. The only items on the agenda was an executive session for "items of negotiation" to be followed by a vote on amendments to the memorandum of agreement with the teachers union. 
 
The two amendments related to benchmarks that trigger full remote learning — one tied the in-school return of vocational students to a drop in the positivity rate below 5 percent for two weeks and the second raised the daily incidence rate from four to 30 per 100,000. Both amendments failed unanimously. 
 
At that point, the committee voted unanimously to begin the return of students to the classroom beginning Jan. 28 with career and technical education and then substantially separete special education students. 
 
In a query about the vote the next day, iBerkshires was informed that "due to a technicality" both motions would be revisited on Jan. 27.
 
Both motions and a third on the return of all other students were listed on the agenda and passed unanimously near the end of Jan. 27's more than two-hour meeting. 
 
Chairwoman Katherine Yon asked if there was discussion but member William Cameron, who made the motions, noted "there was considerable discussion at the last School Committee about the substance of this motion which is being revoted for technical reasons under the Open Meeting Law."
 
The School Committee now has 14 business days to respond to the complaint. The UEP is asking revocation of the votes, a return to remote learning and compensation to teachers affected.   
 
On Monday, the UEP sent a letter to Yon strongly opposing the "rushed and reckless unilateral actions' conducted in the Jan. 27 meeting. The UEP officials say the decision poses a danger to students and staff and was made without proper transparency and respect of the memorandum between the two entities in November.
 
The MOA states that the resumption of hybrid learning can occur when there is a 14-day average of percent positivity less than 3 percent and a 14-day average daily incidence rate of less than four per 100,000 in Pittsfield and Berkshire County as determined by the Weekly COVID-19 Health Report.
 
The teachers union also pushed back on a quote by Cameron in a Berkshire Eagle story on Jan. 29 that called the MOA "guidelines."
 
"They are purposely worded as definitive requirements that were negotiated and agreed to by both the UEP and the Committee. There is no ambiguity in the phrasing or the meaning," said union officials in the letter. "To blatantly defy the very language you agreed to, after rejecting a tentatively agreed to a proposal that would have allowed Career Vocational Technical Education students back into in-person learning when there was a positivity rate of less than 5 percent and less than 30 cases per 100,000 is a pure display of bad faith on the part of the Committee."
 
The letter states that the committee never communicated with UEP regarding the desire to begin in-person learning on the "extremely quick" timeline used.
 
"Most disturbing is that the Committee has not sent a single member to any of these weekly negotiation sessions since September," the letter reads. "Yet still found it somehow appropriate to reject the negotiated CVTE proposal and unilaterally overturn the already negotiated and agreed to MOA provisions. By taking these actions while not participating in the lengthy negotiation procedure, the Committee has displayed a lack of professionalism and commitment to your elected offices that has now fractured the relationship between the UEP and the Committee which has been built over the last decade."
 
The union said it will no longer participate in weekly negotiations with the School Committee. It also demanded to be allowed to conduct its own air ventilation and quality testing in each building and to begin successor bargaining of the current collective bargaining agreement.  
 
Reportedly, UEP will no longer use "interest-based bargaining" with the committee as a result of these actions and will return to traditional, proposal-based bargaining.
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