A pair of Niskayuna teachers at Tuesday’s school board meeting said they feel underappreciated, as negotiations over an expired union contract stretch into a sixth month.
The labor agreement expired at the end of June, but teachers and administrators have yet to agree on a new contract – the longest teachers can remember going without a contract in more than 20 years. This is also the first time a contract has been negotiated in Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr.'s tenure.
While teachers have had a presence at board meetings throughout the school year, wearing black and sitting in the area set aside for residents, few had addressed the board directly about working under an expired contract.
The teachers who addressed the board Tuesday said they and their colleagues commit their nights and weekends to teaching and are always willing to spend extra time helping students.
“So while the praise keeps coming, with the promise of a contract, it seems a bit hollow,” said Chrissy O’Reilly, a second-grade teacher at Hillside Elementary and the mother of a Niskayuna High School student. “It’s hard to feel appreciated or respected for the work we do in and out of the classroom.”
O’Reilly said the demands on teachers have grown in recent years, highlighting the rising mental-health needs of children and a recent spate of violent threats in the district.
A second teacher, Jessica Jefts, who teaches third grade at Rosendale Elementary, said Niskayuna teachers devote time during the summer to develop new curriculum and lesson plans; when she goes to school to work on weekends, she isn’t the only teacher doing so, she said.
“Like many of my colleagues, it isn’t just a job. It’s our lives,” Jefts told the board.
Jefts said she has always felt appreciated for her work, but working without a contract sends a different message.
“That isn’t the message I’m hearing as I look at the calendar and it’s almost the end of December and we still have no contract,” she said.
Niskayuna Teachers Association President Mary Eads said negotiators were set to meet again Tuesday, and she hopes they will move toward an agreement. She refused to talk about specific disagreements but said contract negotiations always boil down to compensation and work conditions.
“We are hoping we can make some progress,” Eads said.
After a September board meeting, Eads pointed to a strengthening economy as a reason to boost teachers, who she said in previous contract negotiations had ceded ground in acknowledgment of economic challenges. The current negotiations started in January, she said.
The base pay for a Niskayuna teacher is as low as $45,863 – for a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree – and as high as nearly $100,000 after 30 years with the school, under the current contract. The expired contract remains effective until a new one is adopted.
After Tuesday’s meeting, Tangorra also acknowledged the negotiations revolve around compensation and work conditions. He said he didn’t think the lack of a contract was creating a strain on the district’s broader academic mission.
“These things take time,” Tangorra said. “I’m confident, at the end of the process, the [teachers] association will have a contract that treats them fairly.”