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.