In the rabbit hole

The new reality is jobs matter more than raises

With art by Forest Byrd

As towns are hammering out the final details of their budgets for next year, school districts are still taking stock of this year’s losses as they gear up to plan next year’s spending.

Both municipalities and school districts need to be aware that, after all the campaign rhetoric, a state cap on property taxes is likely to become a reality.

Andrew Cuomo, who won a solid victory for governor, made capping state spending — including the imposition of a local property tax cap — one of the five major points of his campaign. Cuomo has recommended a property tax cap set at the lower of the inflation rate or 2 percent, and leaders in both houses of the state legislature have said they will take up the matter.

In Guilderland, the town supervisor, Kenneth Runion, had proposed a $31 million budget for 2011 that would not raise taxes; it is dependent on town workers not getting any raises next year. This is wonderful if town workers agree to it.

The problem, though, is contracts with the police, paramedics, and some office workers have yet to be settled. In a 3-to-2 vote last Thursday, the town board did not adopt the supervisor’s budget. Most split votes on the Guilderland Town Board have broken along party lines, with the two Republicans dissenting. In last Thursday’s vote, the Republicans were joined by Democratic Councilman Paul Pastore who made a valid point: Budget expenditures aren’t solid with the contracts unresolved.

In February 2009, when Runion was cutting back overtime hours as county sales tax revenues were decreasing, Brian Forte, who was then president of Guilderland’s Police Benevolent Association, said, “The town has asked us to cooperate with their plans in order to avoid lay-offs. No one is ever happy to see a reduced salary, but everyone on the force understands the need to cooperate, and we’re doing everything we can to maintain our numbers.”

We hope that attitude prevails again — that workers will forego a raise so that others may keep their jobs.

We heard from Rodger Stone this week, president of the CSEA unit with 27 members, that his unit had agreed to get no raises. “Nobody was really upset with the lack of a pay raise,” said Stone. “We understand that, if the money is not there, it’s not there.”

What a generous and uplifting view. In return for getting no raises in the yearlong contract, the workers are being promised there will be no layoffs. Also, Runion pointed out that, even though workers won’t get a pay raise, extra monetary benefits are built into their benefits as the cost of health insurance and retirement contributions have both gone up.

With a state tax cap on the horizon, school districts especially have to take note since the bulk of property taxes in New York State go to schools. The United States Census Bureau in June released a report, Public Education Finances: 2008, which found that New York spent more than any other state in the nation — $17,173 per pupil. Utah spent the least at $5,765; the average was $10,259 per pupil, more than a 6 percent increase over the previous year, 2007.

Instructional salaries, the report says, made up the largest spending category — over 40 percent — for public and secondary education at $203.5 billion.

We admire the stance taken by Guilderland’s new school superintendent, Marie Wiles. She told the school board last week, “Good organizations, when faced with challenges, pull together, take stock of their mission.” Wiles has been Guilderland’s superintendent since Oct. 1 and is facing a number of challenges — a current $87.4 million budget that cut about 40 jobs from the year before, the end of federal stimulus funds this school year, the threat of reduced state aid again next year, increased health-care and pension costs, and upcoming contract negotiations with teachers.

Great organizations, Wiles said, resist the urge, which is human nature, to hunker down and protect their own. Wiles stressed the need to work together.

In meeting recently with school principals and with the directors of athletics, transportation, and facilities, Wiles said, “We didn’t even talk about money. We talked about priorities we can agree on that make Guilderland, Guilderland.” These included maintaining the rich program of study available to diverse students; staying on the cutting edge with innovations; and, she said, “Perhaps most important, commitment to the whole child; every child is important to us.”

These priorities are important and worth preserving. The cruel twist: What makes accomplishing them possible is the dedicated faculty and school staff; three-quarters of the school budget goes to pay their salaries and benefits. The only way to preserve what’s in place is to not give raises.

The Guilderland Employees Association — with about 200 members, including bus drivers, custodians, and food service workers — had originally asked for 5-percent raises, but agreed to a contract in June that had just the year-to-year incremental step increases, but no raises.

“When we first went into negotiations, the times weren’t so bad,” said Mike Liegeot in June, when he was the GEA president. “It kept getting worse and worse. We were in fear of losing more employees than we already are.”

The Guilderland Teachers’ Association is the biggest of the district’s 12 bargaining units with 494 members, including teachers, guidance counselors, school social workers, librarians, registered nurses, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech therapists.

The GTA’s current three-year contract, which runs from July 1, 2008 to June 30, 2010, granted 4.7-percent raises in the first year, 4.4 percent in the second year, and 4.4 percent again in the third year. The teachers progress up a 29-step schedule so that a teacher on the first step in 2008-09 earned $42,000 while a teacher on the highest step earned $71,909.

Unemployment statewide is still high after two years of recession, and, with layoffs for state workers looming, the Capital Region could be hit hard. Adding teachers to the ranks of the unemployed won’t help the economy any more than it will help education.

Most teachers would get a sizeable step increase even without a raise on top of that, something that many in the private sector have had to forego for a couple of years now.

“At most private companies, people have agreed to take pay cuts rather than have colleagues lose jobs,” said Stuart Fass, an Altamont dentist, at a community forum in Guilderland last year. “Unions won’t stand for that,” he said, which “goes against human nature and team spirit.”

Also during the budget-building process last year at Guilderland, the former superintendent — as the district was facing a 17-percent tax hike if no cuts were made and before shifting debt payments softened the blow—appealed to the district’s 12 bargaining units to freeze salaries, saying if all 12 units agreed, the savings would be $1.9 million. We wrote then, that would go a long way in restoring programs and faith in the schools; taxpayers would feel they weren’t the only ones making sacrifices. Only the three central administrators and their support staff agreed to a wage freeze; total concessions came to about $220,000.

As we’ve written before, over decades of covering teachers’ contracts, we’ve most frequently heard from union leaders that the reason teachers need raises is so that salaries will be competitive to attract the best new teachers. What teachers wouldn’t be attracted to a school district where senior teachers had given up a raise to keep the newest teachers who would be the first fired? Such a district would serve as a beacon in tough times, illuminating teachers who cared about their students, their colleagues, the quality of education in their district, and the welfare of cash-strapped residents.

Governor-elect Cuomo’s “Plan for Action” states that local property tax levies in New York grew by 73 percent from 1998 to 2008 — more than twice the rate of inflation. His plan also sates that New York schools spend more than any other state per pupil yet ranks 40th nationwide in high-school graduation. It also says, “Spending on salaries and benefits for teachers and other school district employees are also the highest in the nation.”

Cuomo’s plan says that any tax levy increase above the inflation rate would be prohibited, unless endorsed both by the local governing board and by a 60-percent majority vote. Last May, Guilderland School District voters approved this year’s $87.4 million budget by 55 percent, suggesting that reaching that 60-percent mark could be tough.

A Guilderland resident recently wrote us, “Every year, the school budget is proposed for a vote and the school board states that the labor contract is already in place. Now is the time for residents to express their thoughts to the school board.”

Everyone likes to get a raise. As we’ve written before, town workers and teachers alike work hard and have families to support. They are caught in the same hard times as the rest of us.

But, as Superintendent Wiles said last week, “Good organizations, when faced with challenges, pull together, take stock of their mission.” She wasn’t talking about anyone giving up raises, but we are. If the mission of government workers is public service, we would urge our public servants to consider maintaining their current salaries until the economy improves. That way, colleagues would keep their jobs and the community as a whole would benefit.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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