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Point of View: What is the Teacher Contract Dispute Really About?

Posted on 21 January 2010

By Susan Lamontagne

First there was a mediator, then a Fact Finder, and then a lawsuit. It seems as though nothing has been able to resolve the contract dispute between Sag Harbor’s teachers’ union and board of education. So what’s going on? As the parent of a first grader who has been thrilled with our teachers and who has a lot at stake in the future of our schools, I decided to find out.

I brought together a small group of parents – independent from either side of the dispute – to learn more and find a resolution. We reviewed all the public documentation from both sides. We met with both sides. We asked questions and offered ideas: What if a group of parents recommend a compromise agreement? What if we mediate the dispute? What if we monitor the negotiations? Each time, the answer was no.

So, why can’t the two sides come to an agreement? Here is what we learned from this process and a Freedom of Information request that I filed with the school:

1) Salary Increase: TASH is asking for a 3.9 percent increase each year over four years; the board is offering 2.5 percent. Why can’t the two sides meet in the middle? These increases are in addition to a “step” increase that is already a part of the teachers’ salary schedule that provides annual raises based upon years of experience and amount of education. For example, a first-year teacher with a master’s degree earns $55,071; a teacher with 10 year’s experience, an MA and 30 continuing education credits earns $76,600. Each year they receive step increases ranging from 2% to 3.39%. Add the step increase to the additional raise that each side is asking/offering and you get a board offer averaging just over 5% each year (or a 20.72% increase over a four-year contract) compared to nearly a 6.6% annual increase requested by the teacher’s union (or a 25.6% increase over four years).

In Sag Harbor, however, first-year teachers are few and far between. Most of our 124 teachers have more than 10 years of experience and over a quarter have more than 20 years of experience, so the average teacher salary in Sag Harbor is $86,051.26/year; 32 teachers make more than $100,000/year and eight make more than $120,000/year. It’s a good thing, of course, when teachers have years of experience. From a budget perspective, it adds up. In 2009, our teacher payroll was $10,584,304.80.

The teacher’s union says that teachers should make a salary that rewards their professionalism, education and experience – and they’re right about that. In Sag Harbor, teacher base salaries range from $45,937 for a first-year teacher to $122,468 for a teacher with an MA and 75 continuing education credits or a PhD. Teachers can earn additional pay for coaching sports ($3,000 – $5,500 depending on the sport), providing programs such as the terrific Partners in Print, or overseeing clubs. Teachers also have summers off, when many of them work second jobs, and four weeks of vacation during the school year. But the stalemate is not over whether teachers deserve a good salary – they do. It’s when a district’s budget becomes top heavy with a disproportionate number of senior teachers and the growing cost of health and retirement benefits that the question becomes, how do we sustain these costs in the long-term and also afford art supplies, Spanish, sports, music, building maintenance and a much-needed pre-K program?

2) Comparable Salaries: TASH has expressed frustration that teachers in Sag Harbor make less than teachers in East Hampton. (Set aside for a moment that each district negotiates their contracts at different times so that at any one time your district will be slightly ahead or behind.) I compared the most recent salary schedules for the two districts and Sag Harbor teachers make about $2,000 to $10,000 less a year – depending on seniority – than those in East Hampton. There are other differences. East Hampton teachers have a 14-minute longer work day, larger class sizes, and more ESL (English as a Second Language) students. The biggest difference, however, is our tax base. Sag Harbor’s budget is not underwritten by ocean-front mansions and large retail businesses. Despite these salary differences, Sag Harbor has been able to attract and retain great teachers and the board obviously considers this when negotiating its pay scale.

3) Health Benefits: Health care costs have reached such crisis proportions in the U.S. that it has dominated much of the national political debate. The automobile industry blames health care costs for much of its troubles. The very wealthy and union members are the only two segments of our population left that enjoy excellent health care benefits, which some call “Cadillac plans.” Everyone should have such coverage! Unfortunately, the costs can be crippling.

To help control these costs, the board has asked that all teachers pay 15% toward their health care premium in retirement (currently, only teachers hired after 2000 are subject to this). This amounts to about $91/month for an individual and about $200/month for family coverage (based on the 2010 plan cost of $7,348/year for an individual and $15,972/year for a family). TASH rejected this proposal and the Fact Finder recommended instead that teachers hired after 2009 pay a higher contribution – 25% – to make up the difference. This perplexed me. What about finding a compromise where younger teachers don’t have to shoulder the entire burden? What about offering two health care plans – a lower cost one where teachers would pay nothing and the current “Cadillac plan,” which includes vision, dental and very low co-pays, where retired teachers would contribute a small amount to the monthly premium? Currently, Sag Harbor pays the full health insurance costs of 44 retirees; given the seniority of many of our teachers, this number will increase substantially over the next ten years.

4) Sick Day Buy Back: Upon retirement, East Hampton teachers are able to get up to one year of additional pay if they have the requisite number of unused sick days. Sag Harbor teachers want a similar benefit. East Hampton teachers won this perk in exchange for a 50% contribution to their health benefits in retirement and 65% for their spouse. So, what happens when you have several retiring teachers at the top of the pay scale who earn the buy back in the same year? This becomes an extremely costly proposal to implement. Perhaps the question we need to ask is: ‘What is the purpose of sick days?’

5) Work Rules: There are also differences between the two sides regarding the terms in which teachers work. For example, teachers are paid a stipend in addition to their salaries to monitor lunch times and the board wants to change that. Teachers are requesting a stipend for staffing overnight field trips and they want to select their continuing education classes. These issues seem easy enough, but each has budget ramifications. I always thought that supervising school lunches and field trips were part of a teacher’s job. Teachers should be able to pick their own continuing education classes, but each class they take enables them to move up the salary schedule and the class they pick might not serve the school’s needs. Would a compromise be for teachers to select whatever classes they want, but for the superintendent to have the final say as to whether the class qualifies for a pay increase?

There are countless more issues involved. On each issue, one side says the other won’t budge and the other side says that’s not true and no one other than the two sides can know for sure since members of the public are not permitted to witness the negotiations. Again, I asked and the answer was no.

This is what we do know. We are facing the most serious fiscal crisis since the Great Depression. National unemployment is over 10% and economists agree that number is grossly understated. Last year, President Obama froze the federal employee cost-of-living adjustment, which is somewhat equivalent to the step increase that teachers automatically receive each year (and since the terms of the expired contract remain in place until a new one is agreed up, teachers continue to receive their step increase, except for the teachers at the very top of the salary schedule). Because of budget crises, teachers in California, Iowa, North Carolina and Washington, DC are being let go. Mass teacher layoffs are pending in Florida, Michigan, and New York City, among others.

I want Sag Harbor to maintain the high levels of staffing we all currently enjoy. In the elementary school, for example, classes tend to be smaller, with a teacher and teaching assistant in each classroom. We also have more guidance counselors per student than similar districts. In recent years, we have begun to hear about more and more students being accepted to outstanding colleges. Sag Harbor schools are special, with extraordinary parent and community involvement, and I believe most of us would like to keep it that way. Yet, during Sag Harbor’s last board of education election, candidates faced a firestorm from members of our community who wanted to reduce their tax burden by decimating the schools, which account for about 70% of our property taxes. Fortunately, those of us who believe that we must invest in our children, teachers and schools won the last round. Will we again? How does the board “sell” significant cost increases at a time when many residents have lost their jobs or their incomes have been reduced?

As this dispute continues, the friendly camaraderie that once prevailed in Sag Harbor schools has dissipated. When teachers wear gray t-shirts heralding “Year 2 No Contract” at Halloween events and holiday shows, it feels like someone is raining on our children’s parade. When board members do not respond to legitimate questions or complaints during meetings, it leaves people feeling angry and frustrated. When parents cannot find the time to vote to support our schools, what message does that send to our children, our teachers, and our community?

So, how will we end this dispute? The board and the teachers union need to set aside personal grudges and start to respect each other’s perspective. They need to explain to us what the roadblocks are and be open to new ways of resolving problems. Parents and community members need to learn the facts and get involved. We can deliver a top-notch education at a price our community can afford and sustain. To achieve that, we must all work together. Anything less is to fail our children.

Susan Lamontagne is the mother of a SHES student, a future SHES student, and president of the Public Interest Media Group, Inc.

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12 Responses to “Point of View: What is the Teacher Contract Dispute Really About?”

  1. dorothy sherry says:

    The Express should be commended for publishing that article by Susan Lamontagne as it cleared up a lot of the things I had been wanting to know about the school board and teacher’s pay…sets it out in a good clear way and think whenever there is a issue like this, a good way is to look into the issue in a article like Susan did so the citizen can go from there with the information…very good work…interesting about East Hammpton teachers pay and their tax base and how it differs from Sag Harbor

  2. Robert Cleary says:

    Thank you Mrs. Lamontagne for an excellent, revealing, informative article.
    When the facts are clearly disseminated by arbitrary third parties like her, it should help the standoff come to resolution.

  3. Kevin Major says:

    Mrs. Lamontagne thank you for your very interesting and to the point summation of what the problem is or seems to be(?).
    Having attended several of the last BOE meetings, I too am frustrated. In your summation, you never state who is not allowing you to sit in on the negotiations. Is it the Board? The TASH? Or Both? In recent BOE meetings (including last night’s meeting) the Board has closed the meetings promising to take the contract matter up in the “closed Executive session”. Still, no talks have taken place since December 3 of last year. If no talks are held, we’ll never see any end to this impass. Finally, laying out the initial demands of TASH, is not totally fair, without negotiations, we’ll never know where they really stand. Kevin Major

  4. two sides says:

    While the efforts are applauded, unfortunately this “Point of View” is full of inadequacies and misinformation. Some of that is not the fault of the writer, but merely a result of trying to understand decades of negotiations in a short amount of time. The article makes the teachers seem like money-hungry slackers who are looking to get away with as little work as possible with the fattest paycheck they can get their hands on and to hell with everything else. Mrs. Lamontagne left out critical information – like the teachers already have to have superintendent approval for courses they take and expect to add to the accrument of credits toward salary advancement. That teachers must accrue 15 credits before being eligible to move over on the salary scale, as opposed to the implication that they receive additional money for every class they take. A 3 credit class at LIU costs just over $2700.00. Take 5 of those classes to earn your 15 credits and it has cost the teacher about $13,000 for about a $1500 raise. It doesn’t make financial sense for the teacher to do it, it only makes professional sense – the teachers want to be the best they can be and to serve their students well. Regarding pay for lunch duty, teachers used to cover lunch and were asked to stop doing that in order to build in a 9th period to the day called Academic support. The Board and Superintendent at the time felt the teachers would better serve the students as teachers than lunch monitors, which left the lunch periods unsupervised. So the solution agreed upon by both sides was that of a teacher happened to have lunch or a prep during the student lunch they could opt to not take their lunch or prep and be paid a stipend for the lunch duty instead. If it wasn’t the teachers getting paid to monitor lunch, the district would be paying somebody else. Field trips are of course part of a teacher’s duty, but my understanding was the teacher’s were only asking to be compensated for overnight trips. Taking 80 students on a three day trip is a significantly greater responsibility than your everyday fieldtrip. Is it really so outrageous to compensate them for taking that on? The reality is the damage is done. Both sides have felt disrepected, both sides feel they are right and the community has begun choosing sides. I don’t know what the answer is to this horrible stalemate, but I don’t think bringing in another mediator is going to help. Two professionals have already been brought in to do it, to no avail. It is a shame that the tenor of the district and community has changed in such a short amount of time; it will clearly take much longer to repair itself to where it once was. In the meantime, the district will likely lose outstanding teachers and the district’s reputation will once again be questionable.

  5. Elementary Parent says:

    I see that Mrs. Kochanasz has, in this weeks paper, declined the offer by the Parent Group.
    Fine, but what the heck was the point of wearing the tee-shirts for half a year?
    By definition, wearing the tee-shirts with the menacing black letters on the back made this a public issue. Even a cry for public help.
    The help is offered. The help is declined.
    Go figure.

  6. Consider This says:

    If you trace the timeline back, the issue was made public initially by the BOE. Also, I believe that the point of the shirts is to remind parents that negotiations are not taking place. The “cry for public help” is really a cry to attend BOE meetings and encourage the process to proceed. I don’t know of any school district that has even entertained the idea of a random group of parents mediating contract negotiations. Talk about too many cooks in the kitchen! Isn’t that what the public elected the BOE to do?

  7. Harborite says:

    The parent group is not asking to mediate the negotiations. Mrs. Lamontaigne offered to “witness” them.
    She is suggesting that a small parent group be a fly on the wall, that’s all.

  8. Consider This says:

    Dear Harborite,
    Read Susan LaMontagne’s words again! Line 7…”What if we MEDIATE the dispute?”. Fly on a wall…I don’t think so…more like a opening a can of worms.

  9. Consider This says:

    Oh, I wanted to note that I realize that I made a typo in my previous post. Don’t want to get blasted for that.

  10. P Parent says:

    first, thanks for this helpful and full summation of what is going on.
    secondly, maybe Consider This has a point that introducing more people would be tough. but maybe we need to replace who is not getting the job done. everyone points fingers at the board, but why not acknowledge that Eilene Kochanacnz is a complete failure as a leader of TASH? She needs to go. She represents her own interests and not the best and most vibrant of Sag Harbor teachers. It is a pity. No, it is a crime.

  11. ALL things considered says:

    P Parent, Can you be more specific about why you think Ms. Kochanacnz is a complete failure?

  12. Harborite says:

    Why is she a failure?
    She comes across as pompous and unengaged. She personifies entrenchment.
    Take a look at Greece. Their country’s bankruptcy is a direct result of public payroll and entitlements. Educators, especially, would do society a real service by working toward a solution that works for the good of all.

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