April 17, 2006

The Beginning of a Tax Revolt in East Greenwich: Senior Citizens Take the Lead

The East Greenwich Town Council held a public session on April 4 to discuss a tax freeze for seniors. The well-attended meeting was discussed in all local newspapers (here, here, here). Subsequent, related news can be found here and here. Additional information can be found in an earlier posting.

My own opinions on a tax freeze for seniors were contained in an editorial that was published the week before last in the local newspapers.

I had a chance to drop by for a small part of the April 4 meeting. Here is the gist of my informal public comments:

I am enthusiastically in favor of a tax freeze. I liked the idea so much that my first editorials published in the local newspapers back in 1999-2000 – before I ever served on the School Committee – were dedicated to this important topic. The difference, though, between what I wrote then and what is being discussed today is that I was and am in favor of a tax freeze for all town residents, not just for seniors. My comments here tonight will focus on some ideas that might allow us to achieve that end if we work together.

Property taxes are indeed high in Rhode Island. We moved here 9 years ago today from the San Francisco Bay Area, only to find property taxes here were roughly 3 times what we were paying on a similarly valued home in California. 3 times. It is no wonder Rhode Island has the fourth highest state and local taxation levels among the 50 states.

Why are the property taxes so high in our state? We saw a graph earlier tonight that highlighted what is driving the relentless increases in our property taxes: The school budget which, as a percentage of the total town budget, has risen from 64% in 1994 to 80% today. The financial terms of the NEA teachers' union contract are responsible for this outrageous change. That is why your taxes have been going up faster than your incomes, thereby lowering your standard of living.

Here are some specifics which explain the horrific economics of the teachers’ union contract: Under the current contract, 9 of the 10 job steps are receiving 9-12% annual salary increases for the 8th, 9th, and 10th consecutive years. Until last year, the teachers paid a zero co-payment on their health insurance premiums. Even now, they only pay a percentage in the single digits. We would save roughly $425,000/year if they had a 20% co-payment like town employees represented by the NEA. If teachers don't use health insurance provided by the school district, we pay them $5,000 per year. That benefit will cost us about $550,000 next year. Then there is the perpetual cost from having awarded retroactive pay last year to make the teachers financially whole - even after their work-to-rule actions hurt our kids.

I believe a selective tax freeze for seniors is bad policy for both practical and philosophical reasons. The practical concern - Few, if any, government programs have ever come in under original cost estimates. The philosophical concern - We will begin to balkanize our community into special interest groups who will have an increased incentive to fight among themselves for benefits. This is not a vision for East Greenwich that all of us aspire to.

What can we do about the problem of taxes increasing faster than our incomes? At the state level, we can support a Taxpayers' Bill of Rights, which puts a cap on the rate of increase for state government spending. At the town level, we can begin tonight with a tax deferral for seniors and then focus everyone's attention on the upcoming NEA teachers' union contract negotiations.

Working together, these initiatives offer all of us the chance to work for a tax freeze - for all East Greenwich residents.

I have had numerous people contact me at the meeting and after the meeting to ask how they can help build community support against further giveaways to the union.

On a separate, but related, issue: Right before I left the meeting, I had the honor of joining a growing list of East Greenwich residents who have received a public tongue lashing from School Committee member Merrill Friedemann. All because she thought my earlier posting was too critical of her. Talk about thin-skinned! The real problem here is that she appears not to tolerate any advice or criticism - even when offered in a constructive manner from a one-time supporter.

People see her behavior – storming out of meetings, telling people off - and realize that she has made herself the issue. Her behavior is having some adverse consequences: She is playing into the hands of the political opponents of reform-minded East Greenwich residents. (And I hope the rumor in town about her and Steve Gregson's possible effort on April 25 to toss out Vince Bradley as chairman of the School Committee turns out to be just that - a rumor. Proceeding down that path would reflect personal vendettas more than policy goals and only invite more unnecessary political turmoil. Plus Vince would then really clean their clocks, something he is more than capable of doing.)

Unfortunately, Ms. Friedemann seems to operate from the misguided notion that having lots of people upset with her is a sign of effectiveness. Such thinking means she is politically tone deaf as nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, her public behavior is now being used against the entire School Committee by teachers' union personnel who have written the following:

"...Could the stumbing block in negotiating the last teacher contract have been these same school committee members like the one who the editor of the Pendulum is now saying treats parents, teachers and administrators with harsh disdain? Could the teacher contract have been settled sooner without such people representing the town and School Committee?...The East Greenwich Teachers will not negotiate another contract with this current school committee. We will wait until after the elections to see who the citizens of East Greenwich want on their next school committee..." Connie McCormack, East Greenwich Education Association President in March 30, 2006 East Greenwich Pendulum (not available on web)

"...The present School Committee...has spawn[ed] hatred and malice toward any administrator, employee, parent or attorney that dares to disagree with them on any issue...many staff have left and applicants are not always of the caliber East Greenwich used to expect...thanks for the high performing schools goes to the teachers and staff who work so diligently even though the current School Committee attempted to take away their benefits and lower their salaries to the bottom half of the state during two years of protracted teacher negotiations...The current School Department is in need of a School Committee that can leave their personal issues out of the decisions being made for the School Department. The current School Committee members need to learn some decorum and stop swearing and yelling during...meetings..." Sue Verdon, President, East Greenwich Association of Educational Support Personnel in April 6, 2006 edition of the East Greenwich Pendulum (not available on the web)

Let us be clear: These union officials' comments contain numerous outright falsehoods. They are counting on people not paying enough attention and taking their words at face value. If successful, they then have a chance of getting away with the same devious actions in the future that they pulled in our town during 2004-2005.

But we will not let that happen and the numerous postings below provide a documented trail of evidence regarding their past disinformation campaigns. I don't expect them to change their behavior. I hope Merrill will change her behavior so all reform-minded people can join together with an exclusive focus on challenging the NEA's extortion-like contractual demands.

In summary, the April 4 message from 350 East Greenwich seniors is loud and clear: Nobody can afford the union's relentless focus on maximizing their own adult entitlements. That selfish focus - which does not advance our kids' education - has led to outrageous tax increases which have put many of our seniors at risk of losing their homes. The seniors get it. A lot of other East Greenwich residents get it. No more tolerance for union disinformation campaigns. No more reductions in the standard of living of residents.

There is a tax revolt brewing in East Greenwich, led by members of the Greatest Generation. And many of us will proudly stand with them in this noble cause.


In a nutshell, here was what I thought the negotiating position of the East Greenwich School Committee should have been on some of the key financial terms of the contract.

With *** representing the most important postings, the East Greenwich postings include:
***Background Information on the East Greenwich NEA Labor Dispute***
***The NEA's Disinformation Campaign***
East Greenwich Salary & Benefits Data
***More Bad Faith Behavior by the NEA***
The Debate About Retroactive Pay
Would You Hurt Our Children Just To Win Better Contract Terms?
The Question Remains Open & Unanswered: Are We/They Doing Right By Our Children?
Will The East Greenwich Teachers' Union Stop Their Attempts to Legally Extort Residents?
***You Have To Read This Posting To Believe It! The Delusional World of the NEA Teachers' Union***
So What Else is New? Teachers' Union Continues Non-Productive Behaviors in East Greenwich Labor Talks
"Bargaining Rights are Civil Rights"
***The NEA-Rhode Island's Pathetic Attempts to Manipulate East Greenwich Residents***
What's Wrong With This Picture: 800 Applicants for 14 Teaching Jobs & the NEA Says There is a Problem
East Greenwich Contract Settlement: Reflecting on the Many Lessons Learned

In addition to financial issues, management rights are the other big teachers' union contract issue. "Work-to-rule" or "contract compliance" only can become an issue because of how management rights are defined in union contracts. The best reading on this subject is last year's report by The Education Partnership. It is must reading.

Other editorials and postings include:
ProJo editorial: Derailing the R.I. gravy train
ProJo editorial: RI public unions work to reduce your family's quality of life
ProJo editorial: Breaking the taxpayer: How R.I. teachers get 12% pay hikes
Selfish Focus of Teachers Unions: Everything But What Is Good For Our Kids
Tom Coyne - RI Schools: Big Bucks Have Not Brought Good Results
The NEA: There They Go, Again!
A Response: Why Teachers' Unions (Not Teachers!) Are Bad For Education
"A Girl From The Projects" Gets an Opportunity to Live the American Dream
Doing Right By Our Children in Public Education Requires Thinking Outside The Box
Debating Rhode Island Public Education Issues
The Cocoon in which Entitled State Employees Live
Are Teachers Fairly Compensated?
Warwick Teachers' Union Throws Public Tantrum
Blocking More Charter Schools Means Hurting Our Children
RI Educational Establishment: Your Days of No Vigorous Public Oversight & No Accountability Are Ending
Two Local Examples Reinforce Why Today's Public Education System Will Never Achieve Excellence
Charter School Legislation Introduced to the Rhode Island House
Gary S. Ezovski: Better schools -- Tie teacher pay to family income
Steve Laffey Wants a Voluntary Pilot School Choice Program for Rhode Island
Reasons for a Voluntary Pilot School Choice Program Between Cranston and Providence
Urban Arrogance & Fixing Education
Proposed Rhode Island Legislation on Education
Education "Adequacy"
The Urban and Political Arrogance of David Cicilline
Rhode Island Statewide Education Aid, By Community, Per-Pupil

American education is failing to keep up with other countries around the world. This has long-term consequences for our country's economic strength and our standard of living. It also has serious consequences for the ability of all American citizens to have a clean shot at living the American Dream.

This mega-posting on school choice pulls together many educational policy themes into one posting:
The Moral Imperative for School Choice

Here are some other specific postings on broader public education themes:
The Deep Performance Problems with American Public Education
Freedom, Hard Work & Quality Education: Making The American Dream Possible For ALL Americans
Parents or Government/Unions: Who Should Control Our Children's Educational Decisions?
Now Here is a Good Idea
Milton Friedman on School Choice
Issuing a Call for a Higher Quality Public Debate About Education
Is Merit Pay for Teachers a 'Crazy Idea'?
Reporting False Performance Data Under No Child Left Behind: Why Are We Surprised At Dishonest Behavior By The Educational Bureaucracy?
Lack of Merit Pay Reduces the Quality of Teachers & Our Schools
Will We Measure Educational Performance by Inputs or Outputs?
Paycheck Protection: Allowing You to Keep Your Own Hard-Earned Monies
"Shut Up & Teach"
Spreading Falsehoods in our Children's Education about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the American Founding
No Educational Bureaucrat Left Behind
Congressman John Conyers: Another Liberal Pursues School Choice For His Kids While Blocking Needy Children From Having The Same Opportunities