READING – If the first nine meetings of the Reading ARPA Advisory Committee (RAAC) were focused on numbers big and small, Wednesday’s night’s four-hour meeting at Town Hall focused on stress. And sacrifice. And frustration.
If all the numbers left you numb, it’s okay to admit Wednesday’s discussion may have left you close to tears. Many of the stories from the 2020-21 school year, all submitted as part of the Reading Teachers Association survey in an effort to get premium pay for its 385 members, were included in the RAAC meeting packet, pieces of which are below.
“I did not attend my grandmother's funeral when she died in January 2021, nor did I take any days off to grieve because I knew my absence would only further the challenges my students would face … I canceled my own wedding before the 2020-2021 school year to keep my team members, students, family and friends safe.” -- Roisin Munson, Special Education teacher at Coolidge.
“Coming home to a wife who is immunocompromised and a child who was born prematurely, while still being a happy, outgoing, engaging teacher for students was a near impossible task.” – Adam Derosier, 5th grade teacher at Joshua Eaton.
“In the first 6 months of the pandemic, I lost both of my parents … I took one week of bereavement leave before returning to work. One week. By mid-November, between the anxiety of being exposed to a deadly virus every day, trying to meet the untenable demands of my caseload, grieving the loss of my parents, facing my first holidays without them, and having limited contact with my siblings due to my high level of exposure, I was experiencing anxiety attacks and not sleeping. I ended up on a heart monitor for two weeks because the stress was manifesting in frightening cardiac symptoms.” -- Jennifer Zurcher, Birch Meadow & RISE.
“I sacrificed time with my parents and grandparents in order to teach students. Essential workers like me made the decision to sacrifice the safety of their families for the students who needed us.” – Jennifer Gray, Parker.
“We had students in crisis left & right - assessing over Zoom was very challenging and so for the wellbeing of our students, it was crucial for me to be in my office every day.” – Maura Keefe, RMHS counselor.
RAAC’s eight-member committee, led by chair Marianne Downing, read those stories and heard presentations from representatives of Reading teachers, paraeducators, and secretaries as to why some of the town’s remaining ARPA funds should go to them in the form of premium pay. As Joshua Eaton kindergarten teacher Lauren Fusco asked in her survey response, “Don’t we deserve a token of appreciation?”
Jessica Bailey, president of the Reading Teachers Association led the group, which included teachers Gioia Butler, Tim McIntyre, Michelle Hopkinson, and Munson. They were joined by Gail Caiazza, treasurer of the Reading Paraeducators, and Diane Finigan, representing the district’s 13 secretaries.
“What we’re asking for is for all employees of the town and the various unions requesting funds to be treated equitably,” said Bailey. “What does this mean? In our opinion, any town employee who worked in person with the public thru the pandemic should be given a stipend, or premium pay, whatever the term is, based on the amount that they worked. This would mean that our school nurses and the approximately 38 summer school teachers who worked in person from March 2020 thru the summer and into the next school year would be treated the same that first responders who worked in person during that time would be.”
No one on RAAC disagreed with her statement, nor the statements by Caiazza in support of paraeducators, or Finigan in support of secretaries. The challenge as always, was how much and for whom. What does “a token of appreciation” really mean.
“We all wish we had this unlimited magic money tree, but we don’t,” said Mark Dockser.
What they do have is a shrinking pool of ARPA funds. Since May, RAAC has approved spending a little over half of the town’s original ARPA funds ($7,592,234) and the Select Board, which has the final say, has agreed. All were deemed time-sensitive.
The Select Board has approved:
$2 million for a new literacy curriculum for schools.
$650,000 to help limit the water and sewer rate increase.
$900,000 for Elder Services.
$250,000 for covid supplies and test kits.
$77,000 for flood mitigation at Maillet Sommes.
$8,000 to survey two pieces of land on Sanborn Lane.
$11,620 for the Trails Committee for work at Mattera Cabin along with boardwalk improvements.
$100,000 for the Town Forest Committee to continue its work to remove dead trees and invasive species.
Those approvals leave $3,595,614 remaining in available ARPA funds. In addition to the teachers/paraeducators/secretaries request, Reading police/fire/dispatchers have also asked for premium pay along with the AFSCME union that includes DPW staff, cafeteria workers, and custodians.
RAAC members again debated how best to determine how much money they could give the educators. Chris Haley targeted anyone who was in school buildings during that period. Shawn Brandt said the best path was to pick a figure and divide it by the total number of staff. But Tom Wise wanted to break it down based on what they did, when they did it, and where they did it.
There was also a desire to compensate lower paid employees like paraeducators at a higher level, something ARPA guidelines encouraged.
“They all made huge sacrifices in one way or another,” said Brandt, who suggested a target of “$1,000 buckish” for the 700-plus people.
In the end it was agreed that Wise and Brandt would sit down and come up with an agreeable formula and present it to the group at their next meeting.
“I think we all agree we want to do something, but how much,” asked Downing.
Three groups had the difficult task of following in the footsteps of the teachers, etc. They included updated requests from the Reading-North Reading Chamber of Commerce ($29,000) and the Reading Food Pantry ($84,6000) along with hearing from Reading Youth Lacrosse and the Recreation Dept., with an update on the lacrosse wall.
The Chamber’s request started with $15,000 for complimentary memberships, after president Jennifer Rogers said they’ve lost 90 members due to business closures or those not being able to afford the expense. The Chamber asked for $10,000 to expand the Shop the Readings program. North Reading has already given the chamber $8,900 for the program, something RAAC members had asked about at previous meetings. The final request was for $4,000 to produce signs and banners to remind people that businesses will be open during upcoming water main work that will start in the fall and continue throughout 2023.
Chuck Webberly, President of Reading Youth Lacrosse, explained the lacrosse wall to the RAAC members, including a cost of $150,000. Webberly described the wall as “a jersey barrier on steroids.”
Vanessa Alvarado was before RAAC to explain the Food Pantry’s amended request. The pantry is asking for $12,000 for two refrigerators, $57,600 for gift cards and inflation costs, and $15,000 to hire a space consultant to find a new home for the pantry.
The RAAC will meet again Aug. 31st followed by another meeting Sept. 6 as the group heads toward completing its mission in October.