The teachers’ union in Bridgewater and Raynham is planning to file a labor grievance that could block volunteers from keeping the school district’s libraries open. And as word of the work action spreads, it is stirring up outrage in the two towns.
Librarian positions were cut from the middle schools in both towns this year and their salaries channeled into hiring teachers to address bulging class sizes. Volunteer organizations stepped in to pick up the slack — only to be surprised and disappointed by threats of a labor complaint.
Anita Newman, president of the Bridgewater Raynham Education Association, last week confirmed the union’s plan to file a grievance with school principals. All schools whose libraries are being kept open by volunteers would be part of the grievance, she said.
“You’re putting unqualified people into the library who are not certified,’’ Newman said, calling it the basis of the grievance. “We don’t want to ruffle feathers, but you’re responsible for the children. We don’t use volunteers for recess or lunch either.’’
School Superintendent Jacqueline Forbes said she intends to keep the vol unteers in the district’s libraries. “If there is a grievance or other issue, we’ll work through that.’’
According to the superintendent, volunteer help in the district’s school libraries isn’t something that just began this fall. They have been used in Bridgewater’s Williams Intermediate School library for several years, she said, and there hasn’t been a librarian in there to oversee them during that time. The elementary school libraries are overseen by proctors, under whom volunteers work.
“The volunteers check books in and out and shelve books,’’ Forbes said. “These tasks don’t require you to be certified.’’
Patricia Riley, president of Raynham’s volunteer group RAVE and a member of the regional school committee, said about 20 volunteers stepped up to work in the Raynham Middle School library after the librarian position was cut. But the volunteer effort ended on Oct. 5 — the same day it began — after volunteers were warned by a staff member that a grievance was being filed.
“I think we would all love to see our school libraries staffed with full-time librarians,’’ said a frustrated Riley. “Our volunteers were merely there to keep the libraries open for the students to use. They were not going to be replacing any librarians or school personnel who were not rehired. And they certainly weren’t going to be teaching library science.’’
Riley said library instruction is being handled this year as part of the language arts curriculum.
“We certainly didn’t see anything that would make volunteering in the library an issue,’’ she said. The volunteers would simply be shelving books and handling other tasks under the direction of a paid proctor assigned to the library.
Forbes said volunteers will be returning to Raynham’s middle school library and they will continue in school libraries where they are already working.
“Volunteers are now being trained at the Bridgewater Middle School and at Raynham Middle School,’’ she said.
Wendi LaCivita, president of the parent association at Bridgewater’s Mitchell school, said she hopes the union will review its rules about volunteer use in the schools.
“If we are stepping over the line, we’ll pull back,’’ LaCivita said. “But if it’s not stepping over the line, I would hope teachers would welcome us.’’
If the school principals deny the union’s grievance, it heads to Forbes. If Forbes can’t settle the issue with the union, the grievance will be turned over to the regional school committee, where there may be little sympathy for the union’s position.
“We felt the most important thing was to let the kids have access to the library,’’ said Susan Prewandowski, a regional school committee member and longtime school volunteer. She said parents had been upset this summer, believing the elimination of the librarian positions would mean the school libraries would close. When parents heard the libraries would be kept open to students, they calmed down.
Bridgewater and Raynham voters approved tax-limit overrides this year, from which the school district benefited. “I think when people find out about this library business, they are going to be very angry with the teachers,’’ Prewandowski said.
The two towns are expected to receive an estimated $1 million in federal stimulus money for schools, and the district will have two years to spend the funds. One school committee member wondered whether the teachers were putting on pressure to get the librarian positions reinstated. The union is also negotiating a new contract, since the old one expired in August.
Prewandowski said she doesn’t want to see the stimulus funds earmarked for any use at this point. “We have to apply for the money, so there’s no guarantee we’ll even get it,’’ she said. “And we’d like to save the bulk of it for next year’s budget.’’
School committee member Gordon Luciano, irate over the union’s announced grievance, said the action demonstrates “a continued pattern of this particular union leadership, refusing to work with the school district for the best interest of the children.
“I’ve been involved in town government for 18 years, as a selectman and school committee member,’’ Luciano said. “I’ve dealt with two former presidents of the teachers’ union. This is by far the most uncooperative and irresponsible leadership team I’ve seen.’’
Luciano said the union was putting its own interests above the interests of the students and communities. “At some point, I hope the membership will send a message to the leadership saying, ‘No more nonsense. It’s time to work with our towns.’ ’’
Newman did not return several calls seeking reaction to comments on the grievance.
Forbes said it is important that school volunteers continue to feel appreciated. “I, as superintendent, would never want to say no to volunteers. We want to make our volunteers feel welcome.’’
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Christine Legere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.