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Teachers are learning Economic Reality 101

Big wins at the bargaining table used to be the norm for the region's public school teachers, no matter how bad the economy was or how much those victories pained taxpayers.

But lately, teachers are learning a new, unpalatable lesson:

Reality bites.

A deep recession and huge cuts in state aid have district negotiators doing the basic math that dominates life in the private sector. If your business is awash in red, slash your biggest costs -- employee payrolls.

"They just have to accept the times we are in," said Lancaster School Superintendent Edward J. Myszka, whose district is facing a $9 million deficit and talking about a record 21 percent tax hike as a result.

It's not a good time for teachers there to be locked in bitter contract negotiations. They are not alone: About a dozen districts in the Buffalo Niagara region are in contract talks, almost exclusively involving teachers.

Teachers say they are unappreciated and underpaid. That's a common and longtime lament, even as teachers at the top of the pay scale trend toward six-figure salaries.

But what's new in these negotiations is that, for the first time in decades, there is widespread talk of outright layoffs, not just job cuts through attrition.

The New York State School Boards Association estimates that as many as 14,800 teachers could be fired if Gov. David A. Paterson's proposed $1.3 billion cut in school aid is enacted.

Buffalo says it will be forced to fire 680 staff members, or nearly 10 percent of its work force, and districts such as Lancaster, Sweet Home, Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda, Newfane and Lewiston-Porter say layoffs are inevitable.

Thus teacher unions are suddenly faced with the real-world calculation of whether to agree to concessions that could stave off some layoffs, or watch teachers lose jobs.

As far as the head of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers is concerned, the answer is simple.

"No concessions," said Richard C. Iannuzzi, president of NYSUT, which is the guiding power for public school union members, including 220,000 teachers.

>'Grandstanding'

Iannuzzi is equally adamant about a proposal by Assemblyman Sam Hoyt that asks teachers to voluntarily skip their raises next year. Estimated savings is $1 billion.

Hoyt, a Buffalo Democrat, is asking NYSUT to push its members to agree.

That's not going to happen.

"Grandstanding," Iannuzzi said.

"It's a ploy to avoid taking responsibility for the failure [in Albany] to meet its legal obligation to adequately fund education," he said.

A handful of districts downstate are making some concessions, such as reopening contracts or accepting smaller-than-usual raises, Iannuzzi said.

Still, times are tense here among some of the biggest districts, and givebacks are definitely not an option.

Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, called Hoyt "a publicity-seeking pathetic excuse for a human being." Buffalo teachers have been without a contract for five years.

Meanwhile, teachers in Williamsville and Kenmore-Tonawanda, the largest and second-largest suburban districts, are packing boardrooms to protest stalled contract talks.

For Williamsville, teachers are there as a show of support for the Williamsville Association of Education Related Personnel, which represents secretaries, teacher's aides and monitors.

Ken-Ton teachers are now at an impasse with the district and are showing up in force at meetings to air their feelings.

"There's frustration," said Donald Benker, head of the 800-member Kenmore Teachers Association, which has traditionally had friendly relations with school boards. "Not having a contract is upsetting."

Ken-Ton Superintendent Mark P. Mondanaro announced recently that he was returning his $7,000, or 4 percent, raise as a show of faith.

Benker had no comment.

But when Lancaster's Myszka told an overflow audience at a budget meeting last week that he was not taking his raise either, he got a few comments. The crowd, packed with teachers, heckled him.

>Little sympathy

Still, teachers' claims of being underpaid are straining taxpayer sympathies. The days are long past when teachers were so poorly paid they needed second jobs to survive.

In Ken-Ton, for example, a handful of teachers earned $100,000 or more in the 2008-09 school year, once extra pay for such jobs as coaching or staff development was added.

Another 70 or so teachers are poised to join them with earnings in the $90,000s, according to the payroll for 2008-09.

Salaries for teachers with master's degrees start at $38,850 and end at the 21st step at $86,988. All but a handful also take teacher training courses at the district, which adds another $2,000 to their pay.

Six-figure earnings are still unusual here, but many step schedules now top out either close to, or in, the $90,000s.

Add to that an average 180-day work year and benefits taken for granted by teachers, like taxpayer-guaranteed pensions, and it's small wonder the beleaguered private sector -- with its job losses, pay and benefit cuts and dwindling retirement funds -- feels teachers should share some of the pain.

"The timing is wrong" for a raise, said Lee Chowaniec, who is a member of a Lancaster taxpayer watchdog group that has watched the district closely.

Teachers have little consideration for the financial turmoil their community is suffering through, he said. "They don't care where the money comes from," he said.

In fact, Lancaster school officials have asked teachers and other union employees to freeze pay. That would save only about $1.3 million, according to district figures, and the head of the teachers union says no guarantees were made that layoffs would be averted.

"That would be a bitter pill to swallow," said Eric Przykuta, head of the Lancaster Teachers Association. "We have the lowest pay of any district" in the area.

Base pay there starts at $37,300 and tops out at $80,800 [both with a master's degree].

Critics note that teachers and other public employees walk into negotiations with a shield that private employees, unionized or not, don't have. It's called the Triborough Amendment, and it requires the terms of a union contract to stay in force until a new contract is approved. The increases teachers are given as they rise up the "step" schedule remain in effect.

"It gives unions the upper hand," said Lise Bang-Jensen of the Empire Center for New York State Policy. "It doesn't give them incentive to settle contracts."

>Searching for solutions

She also notes that costs have soared even as enrollment drops.

"It shouldn't be that hard to cut teachers," Bang-Jensen said.

Teachers say they are trying to come up with ways to save money that will also save jobs. Lancaster's Przykuta said the district is top heavy with administrators but that the district is not acting to correct that.

Unfortunately, even if the district axed every upper-level administrator, the savings would be about $1.6 million -- a drop in the bucket for that troubled district.

Rumore suggests increasing taxes on the rich. He also said the state should stop rebating 100 percent of the "transfer tax" on stock transactions and decrease it to 80 percent, generating $3.2 million in revenue.

Not long ago, Iroquois Central School District teachers suggested saving taxpayers money by holding a "yard sale" to get rid of old equipment.

School officials say they appreciate such efforts. But trying to save big bucks is all but impossible without some impact on teachers, who are a huge cost.

Absent a last-minute bailout from Albany -- and few expect that to happen -- there is no "instant cure" for the financial woes districts are facing, Myszka said.

"We're not crying wolf," the superintendent said. "This time the cupboard is bare."

News Staff Reporter Susan Schulman contributed to this report.

e-mail: ncervantes@buffnews.com

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