Thursday night after about an hour of public comment from educators and parents, Matthew Bach, president of the Andover Educators Association, unfurled a nearly 25-foot scroll of more than 1,000 names of people asking the School Committee to “return to the bargaining table” with the instructional assistants.

Instructional assistants and the School Committee have been at odds in contract negotiations for more than a year. The educators are asking for what they say is a living wage that they’ve defined by the MIT Living Wage calculator while the School Committee members say the total compensation package they’ve offered is fair and above the union’s definition of a living wage.

After failing to come to an agreement while working with a state mediator, the union and School Committee have been asked to meet with a fact-finder. Both sides will present to the state-appointed fact-finder on Nov. 9 who will then make recommendations on how to proceed with negotiations.

Currently, hourly pay for instructional assistants ranges from $16.45 for first-year assistants to $26.31 for those working for the district for more than 17 years. They are also eligible for yearly bonuses for their education — $150 for an associate’s degree, $250 for a bachelor’s and $300 for a master’s — and longevity pay if the instructor has been with the district for more than 10 years.

Instructional assistants work 7 hours a day, for roughly 10 months —184 days — per contracted year. A 25-year employee would make roughly $33,000 for a full school year and with an additional $1,355 longevity bonus, according to the current contract.

Instructional assistants are asking for starting pay to be raised to $22.14, while the district is offering $18.42 an hour for the contract ending in June 2023.

Instructional Assistant Susan Greco described her love of working with students in small groups and one-on-one, but “the part (of the job) I don’t love is the pay,” she told the board on Thursday.

The single mother of three described having to apply for federal aid programs to help her make ends meet.

“I hope my 11-year-old (Honda) Civic runs forever, and maybe it will, but I basically don’t have an emergency fund,” she said.

After Greco and eight others — including other teachers and parents whose students are supported by the assistants — spoke, the vast majority of the more than four dozen people in the room walked out of the meeting. They did not listen to a response from the School Committee, despite committee members asking that they stay.

“Our position is talk at the table,” Bach said while walking out with the crowd.

Members of the School Committee shared their disappointment at having failed to reach an agreement but spoke about the process to get to one.

Coming back to the table is “not an option right now, we are going to fact-finding, and there isn’t an opportunity to reach a successor agreement without that,” said committee member Tracey Spruce.

The negotiation process

The Instructional Assistants have been without a contract since July 2020. Negotiations had started earlier that year but were put on hold when the pandemic struck in March 2020.

Last November the union and district leaders returned to the negotiation table.

They met nine times before bringing in a state mediator, said School Committee member Shannon Scully, who is on the district’s negotiation team.

District officials had hopes of settling a contract before the end of the 2021 fiscal year on June 30 so that they could give backpay for negotiated raises to the instructional assistants, Scully said.

The district’s offer also included a $1.79 raise to $18.24 for the first-year educators for the current school year, which would rise to $18.42 next school year.

Before the June 30 deadline to get potential backpay, union representatives held a vote on whether to accept the potential three-year contract to ensure they could get retroactively paid their extra wages. The union voted not to, Bach said.

The educators are “standing their ground” during these negotiations because “they’ve seen this so many times in the 10 to 15 years they’ve been here, and this time they won’t back down,” Bach said.

Scully laid out how the entire compensation package — which includes healthcare, a pension, educational assistance and a variety of opportunities for additional pay, including $9 more an hour when an instructional assistant steps in as a substitute teacher — creates a livable wage, she said, citing the MIT Livable Wage Calculator.

“We share the desire to have our IAs make more than a living wage, and the proposal from the School Committee does that,” Scully said.

The committee is looking forward to the fact-finder’s recommendations and is hopeful the contract will be resolved.

“This has been a lengthy and challenging process, but we are optimistic that the assistance of a third-party will provide a helpful lens through which we can bridge our differences. Our immediate goal is to settle this contract, which we hope will include the significant salary increases proposed by the committee,” said Chair Susan McCready. “We were grateful IAs took time to share their concerns at (Thursday) night’s school committee meeting, but disappointed most left before hearing a response from the Committee. We have earnestly tried to move this process forward in a way that respects the critically important role of Instructional Assistants and their importance to Andover students.”

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