Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Union President's Dilemma

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With the recent release of the House and Senate budgets it's looking like the economic situation for schools is going to get even more dire. Add in the fact that a lot of this year's relief is because of the economic stimulus money from the Obama administration, and I'm running under the assumption that as bad as this year's cuts have been next year could be even worse.

It's something I've been thinking about since September, when I officially took over as president of my local. It's been a hell of a first year, and the next two months could be the cherry on the proverbial *hit sundae. My superintendent has been telling folks to expect an even $1,000,000 in cuts--about 13 teaching positions--and in light of the past two days even that eye-popping number could be a case of raging optimism.

The question for local union leadership becomes this: how do you respond?

Consider my local of about 130 members. If we did lose 13 positions it would be devastating to all five of my schools. Morale would be ravaged, and I truly don't think that's too strong a word to describe the impact. Class size would spike, particularly if the cuts to I-728 and levy equalization that are being bandied about actually come to fruition. Members are looking to me to save their job, which is a hell of a responsibility; similarly, drastic cuts to staffing also lower the quality of the workplace for everyone left behind.

The temptation is to look at the contract and see what could be "given back" to the school district to save money. We have 86 hours a year of per diem, for example; that's more than $500,000 a year that could save roughly 7 positions. Given that per diem is extra money, some reason, they're willing to give up the extra for the good of the whole.

Not so fast, though. That money is also pensionable income, so any teacher who is within sight of retirement (3 years) needs that money in their paycheck to bump up the pension that they'll receive for the rest of their life. Giving away that $4,000 of per diem this year not only costs them now, but the difference for them every month of their retirement could be profound.

Or, consider my members at the very bottom of the seniority list. The $2,500 that per diem means for them is Christmas, is the property taxes, is the automobile insurance. How close to the bone would I be cutting if they didn't have that cushion?

Another area that comes up regularly is health insurance. There's a piece of the budget called the "Health Care Authority Remittance" (HCA), which is much better known as the carve-out. This is the money that school districts have to remit to the state to pay for health care for retired teachers, paras, and administrators, and right now the bill is about $60 per month per teacher. When carve-out started that cost was about $5 a month, which lead to many districts agreeing during contract negotiations that they would just cover the cost. Now that it's trebled four times over we're talking big dollars: for my district, about $90,000.

I could say, "OK--you can take that money out of the monthly health insurance allotment that we receive from the state." The practical impact would be that the people who are already paying out of pocket would see their costs go up $60 a month; for me, a guy who already pays about $440 a month out of pocket, that would make it about $500 a month. Those who insure only themselves--the single people, or those with a spouse who has good insurance--could come through untouched, or only paying a token amount.

Or, I could say that all the money that currently goes into the insurance pool could be used for the carve-out. That wouldn't completely eliminate the bill, but it would alleviate it some. The impact of that would be felt by anyone who uses the insurance pool to lower their monthly costs. That hits the people with families and kids the hardest.

My speech therapists get stipends--three days a year--but taking that away makes it feel like I'm targeting a very narrow band of my membership. My ag teacher at the high schools has a 40-day extended contract which pays him an additional $10,000 a year, but he earns every penny of it because his FFA duties keep him going all summer long. I could bargain those away, but that's lousy leadership.

What to do?

It's worth noting that the official advice of the WEA is that you never, ever trade money for jobs. Getting cost items into the contract is always a fight, and surrendering the long-term gain to avoid the short-term pain makes no sense in their view. The jobs always come back--remember, it's layoff AND recall--and while the pain is real for those sent away it's just part of doing business.

I understand that. Economically, intellectually, it makes all the sense in the world. When an organization that is fueled by member's dues money is telling you that the right thing to do is to have less members, that's probably something that you should listen to.

That said, teaching is a relational business, and layoffs hurt relationships. Culture counts, and I can understand the temptation to put the school family ahead of the fiscal ideal.

It's going to be an interesting couple of months.

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Blogger The Science Goddess said...

I will believe the WEA is serious about keeping money in teachers' bank accounts when it stops raping money from their pocket books each month. I had up to $700/year in "dues." I could trade some of the things you mentioned from the contract by balancing out not having to pay dues to an organization I don't want.

5:12 AM  
Blogger Margaret Paynich said...


I would first like to say that my solution to a majority of education issues would be to first completely re-organize, at the state level, and through legislation our school systems. Completely re-consider every law, every Board of Education, every local school board, every state education department, every local school department. The school systems we have now were not designed for every child to succeed and go on to college - they were designed hundreds of years ago to "Americanize" children, to prepare some for college and some for working in mills. Our current school systems are not designed to provide every child with a quality education, and we should stop pretending we can simply "modify" current school systems to do that.

In response to your post:

I think the 13 positions you might lose can't be any worse than all the other people in your district losing their jobs too. If morale is ravaged, maybe it's because of the devastating down turn of our economy that causes such lay-offs. Union or not, it's each person's own responsibility to save their own job (which would be easier in a school system that allowed everyone to do their jobs). At the end of the day, everyone is ultimately responsible for all of their actions and choices.

As far as pensions are concerned - teachers and public employees should feel LUCKY to get what they are already getting. I wasn't around when pensions were started, but they were certainly meant for a different time. No one is morally entitled to a pension, at this point we are simply legally required to provide them. We can't afford them anymore, especially when legislators continue to ignore the problem and fail to contribute or spend pension funds. This system discourages individuals from learning how to save for their own retirement. Social security is only supposed to keep you from not being able to survive after retirement - not as a whole support. If pensions were designed to thank someone for the years of service - that's great - but if it keeps people working the same job only to receive the pension and not because they perform well and enjoy the work then it's essentially a contradiction to public work. Everyone in this country, no matter the job, should only continue to be employed because they are performing at a level that both the employee and the employer agree is satisfactory. In positions where the employee has the capacity to improve his/her work and be rewarded as such, pay should not simply be a measure of length of service, responsibilities and education, but a combination of these measures in addition to a level of performance that is mutually agreed upon by employee and employer.

In this post, you claim that "effectiveness" or I would say performance, is not easy to calculate or validate. I am personally, tired of people running away from hard issues because they don't know how they will turn out. We HAVE to solve the issue of teacher performance and effectiveness if not for pay, then at least so we can determine which teachers should be teaching our kids. We need to take hard issues like this head on. I welcome recent studies about how the calculation should be done and how it would happen.

Yes, it is going to take more time, money and effort to fully evaluate teachers in a way that satisfies whether are kids are learning from the right teachers and how each teacher should be paid, but the end result will be worth all the time and money spent. It will be better to invest in such evaluations than to continue spending all the money we currently are and still have no better answer about how to improve teacher effectiveness. How can we improve it if we can’t even identify it?

Now, I would agree that today, our school systems don't allow for an easy answer to this question and administrators have difficulty trying to implement new systems. This is why I am first advocating for a complete overhaul of the systems so that they do allow education personnel to implement practices and policies that are going to work and truly allow our kids to succeed. Once we've re-organized school systems to focus on student success, we can better tackle big issues.

I want to re-iterate that I am not blaming any education personnel for this problem. I am asking all public citizens to demand that their legislatures take a very serious look at their education system. I am asking legislators to stop counting campaign contributions and start doing what’s right for students - no matter what. If you can't get re-elected by doing the right thing - then why do you want to work in a legislature that has such poor practices? Why do you want to represent voters who don't want school systems that successfully allow kids to learn to the best of their abilities?

The last thing I'd like to note is that I am also tired of people who say "here's my solution..." and then no one does anything. I want to tell you that I live in Warwick, RI and I fully intend to spend the rest of my life (which could be another 75 years) trying to fix the problems with our school systems. I am working right now to figure out how to critically review RI's school systems and plan to actively get the public involved in the process. I don't expect you to take my word for it, but I hope in a few years I will have made enough progress to prove what I've written here today, because respect is earned and I intend to earn every bit of the progress I hope to make.

11:23 AM  
Blogger Ryan said...

Goddess: I get that you don't like the WEA, and didn't think anything of your local when you had one.

But please don't compare union dues to rape.

10:45 PM  

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