By Scott McLennan
T he spirit of concerted union action that put Holyoke Teachers Association President Gus Morales back in the classroom is now
infusing a community organizing campaign against a
threatened state takeover of the city’s public schools.
Morales, whose teaching contract was
non-renewed at the end of the last school year,
returned to the classroom on Nov. 24. The episode
marked a victory for the HTA and the right of
educators to speak out on issues that affect students.
Now the association is working with community
leaders to increase the role of parents, educators and
other residents in decisions about the future of the
district’s public schools.
Those efforts took on new urgency recently
when Mitchell Chester, the Massachusetts
commissioner of elementary and secondary
education, moved up a planned review of the
district from April to January. The review
process determines whether a district deemed
underperforming is making significant improvement
based on state criteria. If it is not, the state could
place the district in receivership.
“We will not compromise on the point that
Holyoke should be in control of its schools,”
Morales said, “and the best plans to create schools
that serve all our students will come from educators,
parents, concerned citizens and students all working
The HTA has been collaborating with partners
such as Western Mass Jobs With Justice to hold
community forums on creating the schools that
Holyoke students deserve.
R ose Bookbinder, a Jobs With Justice organizer, has been working with the HTA since last April.
“The passion and commitment that Holyoke
teachers have for their students and work are
truly inspiring,” she said. “Jobs With Justice feels
privileged to be part of this fight to make sure that
teachers, students and parents have a collective
voice in leading the Holyoke schools’ next steps. We
will stand with the HTA, MTA and members of the
community until we reclaim Holyoke schools.”
The campaign, called “Reclaim Our Schools,”
has created a Facebook page under the same name to
keep the community informed.
A meeting organized by the HTA and Western
Mass Jobs With Justice on Jan. 15 drew about 200
people, including several students who spoke out in
favor of their teachers.
“We love our teachers; our teachers love us,” said
a high school student who praised her math teacher,
HTA member Dorothy Albrecht, for providing extra
help early in the morning before classes begin.
For Morales, fighting for a principle is not new.
The English language arts teacher found himself out
of a job last year after he publicly criticized various
school policies that he believed were shaming
children and interfering with their education. He
was especially critical of the use of “data walls” that
displayed student test scores.
The eventual agreement to reinstate Morales
was reached after the HTA pursued a grievance
against the Holyoke School Committee and the state
Department of Labor Relations decided that it would
hold hearings to determine whether the School
Committee fired Morales for his union activism.
“I am glad to be back in the classroom,” Morales
said recently. “During this fight, it was always
gratifying to hear from students and families who
supported me and told me I was a positive influence.”
F ollowing his criticisms and his election as HTA president, Morales received poor evaluations and was non-renewed. Last
August, Superintendent Sergio Páez tried to ban
Morales from school property when he sought to
meet with fellow HTA members. Páez lifted the “no
trespass” order after MTA’s Legal Services Division
warned him that the order violated state collective
bargaining laws and the First Amendment.
MTA leaders and members from across the state,
along with community and labor activists in Western
Massachusetts, were drawn to Morales’ fight,
supporting him at rallies and signing petitions calling
for his rehiring.
“Our members across the state should be paying
attention to what happened and what is taking place
in Holyoke,” said MTA President Barbara Madeloni.
“The HTA successfully struck down censorship
and the practice of administrators targeting leaders
willing to speak out.
“Now the HTA is organizing itself and the
community against an attempted state takeover based
on the results of standardized tests,” she continued.
“Holyoke is a strong and proud community facing
the harsh realities of poverty and economic injustice.
Instead of calling for a commitment to the well-being
of every child in the community, Commissioner
Chester is getting ready to blame teachers. He should
instead be turning to teachers for solutions and
allowing Holyoke to maintain control of its schools.
Test scores are being used as a weapon against
teachers, students and communities. We should take
note and organize to stop this attack.”
Once Morales was reinstated, he and the HTA
agreed to stop pursuing both the grievance and the
DLR complaint. He is now teaching middle school
English language arts at the E.N. White School.
“This fight was never just about me,” Morales
said. “As you can see, there are forces at work
aiming to increase privatization of our public
schools. Those who want to remove local control
of the schools base their arguments on standardized
test scores that bear no reflection on the quality of
our students or teachers and ignore the devastating
effects that poverty has in our classrooms.”
M orales said that in addition to the potential state takeover of the district, the city faces many other education issues, including
the state’s “turnaround plan” for the Level 5 Morgan
Elementary School, the loss of veteran teachers as
class sizes have increased and the methods used to
assess students and educators.
“For the past 20 years, the state has been foisting
private partners upon our schools, resulting in costly
and failed ventures,” Morales said. “It is time we let
Commissioner Chester know that Holyoke children
deserve better than to be treated like pawns in a
Photo by Rose Bookbinder
About 200 concerned educators, students, parents, community leaders and other residents
attended a meeting on Jan. 15 to help shape a vision of the schools Holyoke deserves.