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House Speaker DeLeo Accuses Mass. Teachers' Union Of Mocking Education Chairwoman Over School Funding

Hundreds of teachers, parents and school advocates demonstrated Thursday, May 16, in Boston in support of legislation to boost school funding. (Courtesy the Massachusetts Teachers Association via Facebook)
Hundreds of teachers, parents and school advocates demonstrated Thursday, May 16, in Boston in support of legislation to boost school funding. (Courtesy the Massachusetts Teachers Association via Facebook)

With tensions mounting between education advocates and Beacon Hill leaders over school funding, House Speaker Robert DeLeo accused the state's largest teachers union of resorting to "juvenile tactics" by appearing to mock House Education Committee Chairwoman Alice Peisch during a rally.

The criticism from DeLeo was sparked by Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy posting a photo to Facebook of herself and three other women smiling and clutching fake pearl necklaces.

The photo caption read: "Alice Peisch, let go of the wealth and #FundOurFuture."

Najimy, who teaches kindergarten in Concord, was among hundreds of teachers, parents and school advocates who demonstrated Thursday at the State House and on the Boston Common in support of legislation to significantly boost school funding by updating the state's local aid formula.

Peisch, a Democrat, often wears pearls, and some in DeLeo's office interpreted the prop as meant to suggest that Peisch could not understand the circumstances of poorer students because she lives in the wealthy suburb of Wellesley.

Peisch declined to comment on the photo when reached late Friday afternoon, and Najimy said she meant "no offense." But DeLeo jumped to the defense of his chairwoman and suggested that Najimy and the MTA were more interested in theatrics than helping to find a solution.

"Chairwoman Peisch has been tirelessly working with her Senate counterpart and House colleagues to make progress on the education funding issue. In fact, the House has never stopped working — convening stakeholders as soon as last session ended in August of 2018," DeLeo said in a statement given the News Service. "Now is the time to dig into the details of this nuanced, complicated formula — not for stunts. These juvenile tactics are counterproductive to achieving the goal of helping students and getting things done."

Though personal attacks have become more commonplace in national politics, they are still somewhat rare on Beacon Hill.

The spilling of bad blood between House leaders and the MTA also comes at a moment when Democrats continue their long search for common ground among themselves and with teachers, parents and municipal leaders over how to revamp the state's school funding formula.

Almost five months into the two-year session and nearly 10 months since talks in the Legislature about school funding reform collapsed last summer, unions and local school officials are growing impatient for signs that the House and Senate will be able to strike a deal this year. The speaker also appeared to be sensitive to some of the criticism he was receiving on social media after the rally for not meeting with protesters.

"Had the MTA wanted to achieve progress yesterday, they would have attended a meeting between the principals and the Speaker’s office," DeLeo said.

A senior aide to the speaker said Najimy and MTA Vice President Max Page had been invited to meet with DeLeo on Thursday in his office to discuss school funding, but the invitation was declined.

The speaker's senior staff did meet with several teachers from Revere, as well students staging a sit-in for higher education funding throughout the day, an aide said.

Najimy said the pearls were not pre-planned, but she did not apologize for using them as a prop.

"Thousands of educators and families came to the State House for a day filled with theater, music and marching to draw attention to the urgent needs of our low-income students and schools," Najimy said in a statement to the News Service Friday night. "The pearls were a spontaneous part of a powerful day. They weren't meant to be offensive."

"We welcome the opportunity to meet with the speaker on the crucial issue of funding for public education," she added.

Peisch has chaired the Education Committee for the House since the 2011-2012 session, and helped write the 2014 update to the state's anti-bullying law.

She was also the lead negotiator for the House last summer when talks with the Senate broke down in the final hours of formal sessions over a school financing bill that would have updated the more-than-25-year-old funding formula.

The Senate bill, which had been passed much earlier in the session, would have gone further than the House to adopt the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission.

At the time of the negotiations late in the session, there were also concerns about pushing through a bill without fully understanding the impact the formula changes would have on all communities.

Peisch and Lewis, who is new as Senate chair of the Education Committee this session, have been traveling to visit schools around the state this year and held a hearing on the main education funding bills in March.

As Gov. Baker and both branches advance fiscal 2020 budget bills that make significant increases in K-12 education funding based on the current distribution formula, the wait continues for the committee to produce a formula overhaul and education reform bill.

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