By Devika Ranjan

It’s hard to miss the bright yellow and blue signs that recently have appeared plastered up inside the high school, on the windows of many cars speeding down Route 133, and on the manicured front lawns of Andover homes. “Student Learning Conditions = Teachers Working Conditions” blare the signs, alerting townspeople to a huge issue that the public schools are facing.

To the frustration of the AEA (Andover Education Association) — the teachers union — this week marks the 59th week that the Andover Public School teachers have worked without a contract. The provisions of the previous contract remain in effect. The teachers union and the School Committee have been searching for a compromise to create a “fair and equitable contract that meets the teachers’ needs as well as the AEA staff,” said Ms. Costello, the president of the AEA and an AHS psychologist.

The School Committee “has, as one of its duties, the obligation to set and monitor the school budget. We value our teachers deeply, and believe that education is the most important investment a community can make,” explained Professor Colby-Clements, a member of the School Committee. “However, for this to be affordable — and sustainable — working conditions such as teaching load and planning time should also be commensurate with these communities.”

In October 2009, Andover teachers began to request contract talks. According to Mr. Bach, an AHS history teacher and head of the negotiating team, their request was not addressed for nine months. At that point, the AEA accused the School Committee of Unfair Labor Practice, a law detailed in the Collective Bargaining Act that prohibits stalling contract negotiations.

The previous contract expired in August 2010, two months after the School Committee and teachers union began negotiations. Both sides came together with their own proposals and attempted to create a compromise. The School Committee proposed that high school teachers increase their teaching blocks per year from five to six without a salary increase, which would effectively cut 20 percent of the teachers at Andover High School. A more recent proposal provides no raise for last year, a $200 raise for this year, and a two percent raise for the 2012-2013 school year, assuming the teachers increase the amount of blocks they teach and decrease their prep time. The AEA, however, argued that teacher working conditions should remain the same with a cost of living adjustment by a “modest increase” of salary to keep up with inflation.

Ms. Costello said the AEA saw “no common vision” between the two groups and Mr. Bach said that he was disappointed by their “extreme proposal” without any “willingness to negotiate.” The issue stretched so far that the two teams were forced to resort to mediation sessions instead of direct negotiations.

“The School Committee asked the AEA team if they would join us in declaring an impasse… [and] appoint a neutral mediator to come in and help us…,” commented Professor Colby-Clements. “The AEA’s team did not elect to join us. The School Committee … asked the state to appoint a mediator. The state agreed and a mediator was appointed so negotiations could continue.”

Professor Colby-Clements added, “The School Committee is aware that there are a lot of rumors stirring regarding contract negotiations. Therefore, we encourage students, parents, and members of the community to please be vocal and ask questions if you hear something that is of concern to you.”

The AEA acknowledges the difficult task of the School Committee. “[We believe] it is the responsibility of the School Committee to advocate for revenue that is needed to achieve that goal in partnership with the town,” said Ms. Costello. Instead of cutting teachers and programs, however, she is advocating for the School Committee to “make investments—alliances with businesses, nonprofits, and other schools to increase revenue.”

Mr. Bach agreed that nothing else should be cut. This is a “wealthy town with plenty of money,” he insisted, saying that education was the most important thing in Andover as it is “directly connected to property values.” He said there should be “no fee for service” when it comes to education, meaning “parents shouldn’t have to pay more than anyone else in the town.”

The issue of contracts has been on everybody’s mind as the weeks drag on. “Teachers are continuing to maintain personal standards for instruction but morale is eroding,” warned Ms. Costello. Both she and Prof. Colby-Clements are committed to attaining and retaining an excellent faculty. While both parties want the negotiations to end as quickly and painlessly as possible, they say they still will remain adamant about their positions.

The School Committee issued a statement that it would “sign a contract that will be sustainable, equitable, and good for our schools,” regardless of how long that may take.