January 24, 2005

Rhode Island Politics & Taxation, Part IV

This posting continues a periodic series on Rhode Island politics and taxation, building on three previous postings (I, II, III).

My town of East Greenwich has an increasingly ugly dispute between School Committee officials and teachers' union officials. The dispute has been highlighted in local newspaper articles (here, here, here, here, here).

Comments by National Education Association (NEA) teachers' union officials remind me of words spoken years ago by Soviet officials, whose views of the world were subsequently shown to have no connection to any form of reality.

As the union cranks up its disinformation campaign to intimidate East Greenwich residents, let's contrast their Orwellian comments in recent newspaper articles with the facts:

Comment #1: The School Committee needs to get serious. Taxes in East Greenwich aren't that high compared to other communities.

Data from the Tax Foundation notes Rhode Island has the 5th highest overall tax burden and the 4th highest property taxes. Minor town-to-town variations are irrelevant. As you read on, remember that the NEA doesn't think you are paying enough in taxes.

Comment #2: The School Committee offer was completely unacceptable. It must make a financially reasonable offer.

The offer included a 3.5% annual salary increase for each of the 10 job steps over 3 years.

We frequently hear of 3-4% annual salary increases for teachers. But that is very misleading. That's because most school districts have 10 job steps, and teachers move up the ladder. Every continuing teacher, up to step 10, automatically moves up one step per year, yielding huge salary increases written into contracts and all but hidden from the public.

Based on 2003-2004 data, here is what the committee offer means: 97 teachers are in job steps 1-9 and each of them will get 9.5-12.5% annual salary increases. The remaining 132 job step 10 teachers will get 3.5% increases each year.

Does any rational person think that a salary increase as high as 12.5%/year is financially unreasonable to the person receiving the increase? Or that a minimum salary increase of 3.5%/year is financially unreasonable?

The offer also included a 10% co-payment on health insurance premiums, up from a zero co-payment. With healthcare insurance costing about $13,600/year, that equals a payment of roughly $1,360/year.

The average state employee across America pays about a 15% co-pay. It is much higher in the private sector. E.g., employees at my company pay 24% co-pay on health insurance and 30% co-pay on dental insurance. Meanwhile, the NEA-RI whines here about the prospect of paying 10% without a dollar cap or new, offsetting cash payments elsewhere in the contract.

If teachers don't use health insurance, they currently receive an uncapped annual payment equal to 50% of the annual premium cost or $6,800/year. 71 district employees received this amount, costing us nearly $500,000/year. I know of no corporation that does any sort of buyback cash payment like this.

The offer included capping the buyback at $4,500/year.

The offer also included no retroactive pay back to September. Note how the union has zero incentive to settle on reasonable terms as long as they get retroactive pay.

The offer doesn't even tackle other issues: East Greemwich is one of only fifteen districts in the state to offer tuition reimbursement and the only district to pay full reimbursement. Department chairs receive an extra $7,000/year while only teaching two periods. Extra stipends are paid for any additional work, such as coaching. Health insurance is fully paid for two years after retirement for people with at least twenty years of service.

Comment #3: We do not deserve a pay cut in any fashion...Teachers would ultimately be getting the raw end of the deal.

Here are two salary increase examples under the latest committee offer for teachers with bachelor degrees:

  • Job step 5 beginning teacher: $43,389 in 2003-2004 to $57,490 in 2006-2007, a 32.5% total salary increase over 3 years for an annual increase of 9.8%/year.

  • Job step 10 senior teacher: $60,663 in 2003-2004 to $67,258 in 2006-2007, a 10.9% total salary increase over 3 years for an annual increase of 3.5%/year.

    Even after paying about $1,360/year (in pre-tax dollars, no less) for a 10% co-payment on health insurance, that is some pay cut and some raw deal.

    Nor should anyone forget that union surveys show Rhode Island teachers are already the 7th highest paid among the 50 states - and nobody ranks our statewide public school performance anywhere close to that high.

  • Comment #4: Teacher pay is lower than what other districts offer.

    According to the Rhode Island Association of School Committees' teacher data report for 2003-2004, East Greenwich salaries rank as follows:

  • The top job step 10 salary was the 7th highest out of 36 districts.
  • The job step 5 salary for beginning teachers was 9th highest out of 36 districts.

    East Greenwich is fortunate to have many professionally successful parents - who value education, speak English as a first language, and ensure their kids do their homework and come to school with food in their stomachs. We provide a better than average working environment and still pay above average salaries. Bluntly speaking, given our working environment, we should be able to attract good teachers while paying slightly below average salaries.

  • Comment #5: The union takes exception to comments that teachers were hurting students by working under [minimal] contract compliance, saying to keep students out of this.

    Students at East Greenwich High School are now conducting peer tutoring because teachers are not making themselves available before and after school to help. Parent volunteers are needed as dance chaperones because teachers won't show up. The senior project has been cancelled. Some field trips have been cancelled. Parents are talking all over town about how the students are being hurt. To which, the union says:

    Comment #6: Teachers are still accomplishing what is expected of them legally. If we are not working the hours that we are supposed to work, then they should take us to court.

    Ah, the attitude of true, white-collar professionals.

    As committee member Gregson stated: "We're giving them all the money they got last year and we're giving them all the benefits that they got last year and they're going to make the kids suffer by refusing to do the same amount of work as last year.

    The union insists pay increases be retroactive to last September so they can be made whole - but our children won't be made whole. That makes it hard to believe the union's statements about how they care deeply for our children.

    Comment #7: For the last twelve years there haven't been any previous problems during negotiations.

    After years of giving away 9-12% annual salary increases, zero co-pays, and 50% buybacks on health insurance, is it any wonder that there were no problems in the past? Outrageous union demands met up with spineless responses from politicians and bureaucrats - and the demands naturally won.

    Comment #8: Upset that the School Committee publicly releases specific details of the negotiations instead of working with the union to finalize a deal.

    The NEA wants to return to the gag order rules originally imposed by the union so they can conduct their legalized extortion act without public scrutiny.

    Comment #9: Can we be a team? Can we start working together?

    The school leadership has put a reasonable offer (for Rhode Island) on the table. These words are nothing but a demand for unilateral surrender.

    School Committee Chair Bradley has stated that the committee is only trying to make sure the NEA accepts terms - just like the rest of us - live with.

    There are still many egregious terms and conditions in this latest contract proposal. It is outrageous to grant anyone 9-12% annual salary increases, have a co-payment less than 20%, and pay any form of insurance buyback.

    Seeing how difficult it is to even get a simple 10% co-payment on health insurance confirms yet again how there are structural problems to public education that only true competitive choice can fix.

    It also shows yet again how the demands of public sector unions impede excellence in our schools. Excessive contract demands translate into not only a growing tax burden for residents but also less money for academic programs and facility maintenance. Unions block merit pay for the best teachers while ensuring that the worst teachers get the same compensation as the best teachers. And we wonder why public education performance in America ranks so poorly among countries in the industrial world. It is appalling.

    But you have to start somewhere. And that is why I am proud of our new committee's stance. I hope others will speak up in support of their efforts so we can begin to see the first signs of real change.