Not that I have any allusions about anyone missing my blog during my absence, but I will explain that I have stayed away from this blog topic until the municipal primaries were completed for this cycle. I didn’t want to find myself in the position of endorsing or denouncing anyone who has the energy and willingness to serve in a public position. Now — do I support term limits? — that’s another question and one I don’t have an answer for. School boards are not well served by extensive participation by the same voices — especially when the incumbents believe they should stay on the board to “protect the seat” from the unqualified who dare to run against them. On the other hand, the PSEA has been around for a long time, and will continue to formulate a state-wide (and nationwide to some extent) strategy every year. It may take a few terms before a board member can really understand the role of negotiation in managing your own district. So a mix is good — depending on the components in the mix. With senior board members including new members, we are well served. When they are an exclusive club, who have little regard for new ideas, not so well.
As I stayed out of the election fray, I found myself cringing at periodic statements by candidates about what they could do for this community. While my thoughts and comments are in response to local candidates, my concerns are most certainly relevant to anyone running for or voting for a school board position. “Fiscal responsibililty” – giving our children the best” – “keeping taxes low” …..and all those platitudes that we all like to hear. One local candidate surely cringed after knocking on my door — not knowing what would face him on the other side. I asked about his goals and what he felt he could bring to the table, but then I went off on how simplistic it is to have goals and how difficult it is to accomplish them. This candidate felt that his demographic (elementary age children) was especially lacking on the current board. I, of course, reminded him that everyone who has a child in the district was at some point an elementary parent first. My first year on the board my youngest child was 5. I knew then and I know even better now that elementary parents have very little perspective on the process of educating children. Each level has its own talking points — and each level is obviously naive about what the next level has to offer. The continuum is the base of knowledge.
Am I saying that an elementary parent is unqualified? Nope. I just know that what you want to accomplish when your children are first getting on a bus to school is very different than what you can afford to attempt when your last child is graduated from the system. Having your children in a classroom for a large part of the day is a very vulnerable position if you are at all in an adversary role with that classroom teacher. Parents have their needs — and teachers have their rights, and kids just have to be there. It’s an interesting and complex mix.
As a new elementary parent, your precious child leaves a preschool where you know the teacher well and he/she knows you by first name. You have dropped them off (maybe even at the classroom door) and picked them up with a personal hand-off. When it’s time to start kindergarten, you actually walk them to a BUS STOP where they get on a bus without seat belts, and they attend a building without air conditioning, and they go in the morning or afternoon (without you choosing), and the bus only goes one direction….and unless you have a lot of time to volunteer in the classroom, the teacher may not even recognize you at ACME unless you remind her/him who you are. And if you are a full-time working parent, you may never have occasion except for curriculum night and the scheduled 20 minute conference to actually see the teacher. And that preschool class that had maybe 12-15 kids in it — seems intimate if you are on the wrong side of a class size policy….(which always seems wrong if your child is in it).
So what does this have to do with contracts? Here’s my focus for the next few entries. I did several contracts during my time on the T-E board. I felt the process was civil and went well. There were occasional attempts to influence me through my children (“ask your mother what the Go for the contract button means”) and one threatened unfair labor complaint because I had “intimidated” an un-named teacher that taught my child. (quickly recanted when my lawyer suggested I get the details or we would consider defamation charges). The negotiations were about terms of work (7 hours and 35 minutes is our contract day — longest in Chester County – not negotiable!!!) and wages/benefits.
But here’s the deal I understand now, away from the table, that I didn’t even consider then: we didn’t negotiate wages or benefits. We negotiated raises and increases in benefit costs — and how we would account for them. And folks, that’s the problem.
Teachers deserve to be well paid, but in this economy, it’s hard to define what that means. College graduates are looking desperately for jobs. Salaries reflect the numbers of applicants chasing few jobs. The notion of an underpaid teacher is becoming outdated — especially when contrasted with unemployed workers. Teachers do not make hundreds of thousands of dollars, but they do make a very decent salary that is based on 180+ days of 7 hours and 35 minutes of work (that’s the contracted part). They are paid by a taxing authority, so there is little fear of a pay check not clearing the bank. Pink slips are virtually non-existent. There is no mandatory retirement age enforced, and quality is what the individual teacher chooses to deliver. TE is one of 6 districts in PA that has met the PSEA goal of a $50K starting salary. This starting salary goes up every single year — and the salary for each teacher goes up every single year (and each salary step seems to increase with every single contract). Districts (taxpayers) pay for graduate education that triggers another form of raise for negotiated levels of achievement. Teachers have a benefit plan that doesn’t resemble anything in the private sector in that the employer (again: taxpayer) pays virtually (and in some cases 100%) all of it. And no matter what year it is, or how long the contract is, the above comments stay true. The end of one contract simply means you start talking about the new raises, and the new, higher starting salaries, and the new “top step” money….but rarely do you add any obligation to the process of teaching. Sometimes they will add a non-teaching day (or even a teaching day) but that increases the salary and obfuscates the actual raise percentages. Oh yes — you are tenured after 3 years…so performance isn’t a factor in your salary either. After their annual union meetings in Hershey setting state-wide strategies, one district negotiation focuses on improving education benefits, another improves health care benefits at retirement, and another might put lots more money on the “steps” of the salary schedule. The next contract, your teachers are coming at you with whatever the other district improved (regardless of where you have already added costs). This isn’t done to attract teachers (though it does influence individual decisions, there are many, many applicants for each position). This isn’t even done to retain teachers (or there would be a state contract). This is done because every district wants to claim to be the best, and teachers have a right to strike. No one on a board or in a district ever wants that to happen — including the teachers. So it stays amicable and pleasant and you reach an agreement where the district only spends “some” extra money…and every teacher who was already going to get a raise now gets a bigger one than in the previous contract for their level and education. And papers never talk about taxes — they talk about tax increases. Keep those increases low…. The idea of freezing wages or keeping staff on the same “step” for more than a year is simply not on the table.
The other piece — our state allows you to accrue the right to a pension at the rate of 2.5% per year worked, on your final 3 year average salary. So, start at 22 years old — at $50,000. Work 185 days or so and have as the baseline that you do not get rated “unacceptable” (which doesn’t influence your pay, just puts you into a professional improvement program). Once hired, you get a guaranteed raise every single year you teach (tenured at 25 — so your job is yours) — and retire at 62 with a pension equal to 100% of your salary that is untaxed in Pennsylvania. (And if you still want to work, you can come back in another capacity — often in New Jersey — and start at a high level making a full salary and still getting your PA pension). Let’s pretend that those raises were only 2%…(which they NEVER are) and you are making over $100K in 40 years….so that will be your pension annually. How much does someone in the private sector need to save to generate $100K a year untaxed by the state? And how much does each district have to contribute to the state each year to fund that retirement obligation? So — teachers aren’t rich. But outside of the wall street crowd, do you know anyone who is? Had a double digit raise not based on performance any time in your recent memory? And how many would give up raises for tenure/free benefits/lifetime pension?
So friends. This is my topic. I look forward to comments and questions. I’m going to give you some examples and some thoughts to ponder. I respect teachers, but I’ve lost respect for the contract process. I’m going to tell you why incumbents may understand the game better than new people, but also why incumbents have in many cases been behind a major effort to hide information from the public “who don’t understand.” I’m going to try to encourage you to look hard at the folks who have taxing authority and control the purse strings in your community — and what is behind their interest in serving. We can talk about the benefits of incumbency, and the perils of naivete — and vice versa. These people negotiate salaries and then raise your taxes based on the costs of personnel. It’s a lot of power in a local board.
Oh — one more thing: I will try to explain salary schedules and contracts and benefit obligations, and how the law doesn’t penalize teachers who strike (no loss of income). That’s really an interesting twist. (Check out the Stop Teachers Strikes website referenced in the blog roll)
I’m back….hope you are listening.
Thought for today
The only people who claim that money is not important are people who have enough money so that they are relieved of the ugly burden of thinking about it.
Joyce Carol Oates (b. 1938)
Posted in Commentary