Affording The Teachers We Enjoy So Much

February 22, 2012

in News

This article first appeared in the February 9th, 2012 edition of the Vermont Standard.
By Robert Crean
As we read last week in this publication, our WCSU budget was approved by the WCSU Board. Also, more recently, our WUHSMS budget was approved by that Board, and is being sent to us, the tax paying community, for our approval. The budget committee and Board have done an incredible job on both, (in no small part to Sonia Burnham Johnson, who will (sadly) be leaving us this year), trying to keep the budgets out of the “penalty phase,”
This “phase” is the amount per pupil the State has set, above which we pay a higher rate of tax on. This year, it’s $14,841. We broke that ceiling by $78/pupil. That’s not good, but fortunately, they managed to keep us below the “Two-Vote Phase.”This higher amount is the amount per pupil the State has set, above which and for which, we’d have to have two votes at Town Meeting: one for the amount below that threshold and one for the rest.
This has the effect of making it harder for budgets that the State says are too high, to pass, thus forcing cuts. Recent history has shown that “it works” towards that end (of forcing cuts).
So what’s the problem? We dodged the bullet one more year. We’re fine, right? Actually, we’re not. And here’s why: Of our $11 million budget, 71 percent is Salaries and Benefits. Of that 71 percent, two thirds is our Teachers Salaries and Benefits (about $5.1 million). Benefits account for a quarter of that amount.
As everyone knows, enrollment has been on a decline for the past 5 or 6 years, but teacher retirements have not kept pace with the decline, leading to smaller class sizes, and the incredible support and individual attention our Children receive from what is arguably one of the finest groups of teachers in the State. Combined with this “imbalance”, salaries and benefits keep going up. The teacher contract that was to end last June is still in effect while the arbitration process finds it’s way to completion. It will presumably result in some increase in salaries and benefits.
Taking salaries and benefits together, our teachers make an average of $78,000 per year for the 175 working day school year. By most standards, that’s certainly “fair and reasonable.”
No one would dispute the quality of the work they do, the effort they put in, or their love for their jobs. “Step increases,” or raises, are a usual part of the mix during contract negotiations, but the value of benefits continues to rise independently of any step increases. We pay 95 percent to 100 percent of these health care benefits, and in the past several years, the value of these (the cost) has seen some double digit increases. This should probably be considered, given that across the country, a 0 percent or 5 percent employee share of these costs is becoming the rare exception rather than the rule.
Speaking for myself, I would pay it without complaint, because I believe that we’re getting our money’s worth (look at the recent NEASC accreditation), but I fear that one year from now, when we will most certainly break through the penalty phase and the Two Vote phase, not all of us will be able to afford the luxury of our small class sizes and rich benefits for our teachers.
My fear is that we’ll lose some of our youngest, most energetic teachers, because the way their contract is written, it’s a “last in, first out” kind of system. This can lead to “every man for himself” when it comes to choosing between higher wages and benefits vs. accepting something less to avoid layoffs.
This year and the last two years, we’ve reduced the budget by cutting at the edges…our drug and alcohol program (SAP), changes in the ARC, etc., things that benefit fewer children, but children that often need the help the most. We’re never going to be able to avoid the two-vote phase continuing down that path. If the budget is voted down (or the second vote portion is voted down), the Board’s most obvious choice will be to cut teacher positions.
At more than one recent School Board meeting, teachers addressed the Board, imploring it to be fair and reasonable in bringing the contract negotiations to a close with a fair contract.
I would suggest to them (and remember, “they” are us…They are our neighbors and pay taxes too), that, rather than attempting to make their case to the Board, they make it to us, the Community who pays their salaries and health care benefits; not the School Board. This case could be made at Town Meeting or even on these opinion pages; it doesn’t matter where or how. What does matter is that the case is made, hopefully before Town Meeting 2014. If budgets start getting voted down, it will be too late to do so.


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