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Painful lessons <br> Call for teachers to freeze wages merits serious union consideration

Sam Hoyt is right. Teachers need to be part of the solution to the state's budget problem, not merely a part of it.

The Buffalo Democrat and two downstate Assembly colleagues have written a letter to the head of New York State United Teachers to ask the union to agree to a statewide freeze in teachers' pay, saving more than $1 billion and, thus, helping to prevent what could be massive teacher layoffs. The teachers unions regularly pitch themselves as friends of education and of students; this is a chance to emphasize it.

But it's more than that. Teachers and other public employee unions should be no different than other American workers in helping to bear the burden of the worst economic crisis in 80 years. The New Yorkers who fund their paychecks have taken a beating over the past couple of years, some losing their jobs, others giving up pay increases or other benefits. They need help.

Unfortunately, the Assembly leadership seems to want nothing to do with this idea. Speaker Sheldon Silver wants to borrow $2 billion to help pay operating costs while restoring about $600 million in education cuts proposed by Gov. David A. Paterson. Although the Assembly approach would still cut $800 million in school aid payments, he asks nothing of the teachers unions to help right the state's foundering ship.

Such concessions, of course, would have to be made at the local level, the level of teacher contracts. And at that level, some counter-arguments also have merit. In Buffalo, for example, previous efforts to deal with a local financial crisis triggered prior multiyear wage freezes, and the financial pain already has been shared.

But that doesn't mean teachers shouldn't at least consider helping out, especially in better-off districts and where a concession could save jobs, help with class sizes, limit school closings and close budget gaps without once again weighing more heavily on already-struggling district taxpayers.

The fact is, many teachers statewide have made out reasonably well during this recession. According to Hoyt and his two downstate colleagues -- Assemblyman Michael Benjamin of the Bronx and Assemblywoman Ginny Fields of Suffolk County -- contractual "step" increases for teachers outside of New York City rose an average of 5.6 percent last year. That's more than most New Yorkers receive in a healthy economy, let alone what they've been dealt the past couple of years.

New Yorkers, who pay the nation's highest taxes, can't afford to pay even more. And with a debt load that is three times the national average and fifth-highest per capita, they can't afford more borrowing, either.

Hoyt and his partners need to stand fast, and to seek partners in the Assembly and the Senate. They, and the rest of the Western New York delegation, need to let Silver know that they can't vote for a budget that demands nothing of state-supported workers, including teachers. That Silver and the Assembly majority would even think of endorsing a budget that fails to seek that kind of assistance is shameful.

Best of all would be for NYSUT and all teachers to acknowledge the fundamental fairness and good sense of Hoyt's request. It's late in the budget process, but New Yorkers need all hands on deck as they try to survive the financial tsunami that is swamping the state. Anyone who is not helping to keep the ship righted is helping to sink it.

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