Prepared Text for Board Meeting Ė October 13, 2008 (Contract)

Marc A. Schare614 791-0646 Home

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Arguably, the negotiation and approval of a union contract is one of the most important things that a board member can participate in. The contract between the public and the teachers governs just about every aspect of the education that we are able to deliver. Iíve watched this process carefully and now, I have to vote on the result, but before doing so, I want to make a number of comments, and this will take about 7 minutes. As always, and perhaps more than usual, these comments reflect only my opinions and my perceptions of this process and the result.

 

Let me start by debunking some myths about contract negotiations.

 

The first myth is that the salary increases and health care benefits are somehow a reflection of the job that someone might think the teachers are doing. In my opinion, teacher contracts are a function of the competitiveness, the local economy and the probability of new revenue.

 

The second myth is that the contract is negotiated by the board, or at least by all of its members. Here, I want to be clear because I refuse to take the credit, or the blame, for something which I had very little to do with. Clearly, it is the collective will of the board and not just one board member that must be listened to, but it was frustrating that there were pieces of the contract that were never discussed with me and that I never saw prior to being agreed to by both sides. This is a violation of board policy and it is my hope that we either rewrite board policy to reflect reality, or, much preferred, to make sure that reality conforms to board policy.

 

The third myth is that the teachers union is greedy or in some other way not playing by the rules, a sentiment expressed to me a dozen times in the last week. While we can have great fun debating whether teachers unions are good or bad for public education, they are here and they are going to remain, and teacher unions will do what they are paid to do, which is to negotiate the best possible package on behalf of their members. I no more blame them for that than I would blame Bret Farve for throwing touchdown passes. The Ohio Revised Code specifically lays out a shared governance model in its collective bargaining statutes and if the public doesnít like it, yell at the Governor or the legislature but in the meantime, this board must play the hand it is dealt.

 

The fourth myth, and I address it only because Iíve heard it a hundred times over the years is that the school board doesnít try to get a good deal on behalf of the taxpayer. To the extent that we had input into the process, I did not observe such an attitude.

 

Ultimately, regardless of process, the business tonight is an up or down vote on the resulting document. So letís talk about the contract.

 

Coming into negotiations, I had identified dozens of things I would change if I could but they could be categorized into two big issues, one on the management side and the other being financial. They were equally important to me.

 

First, I wanted to explore the concept with the WEA of treating teachers like the professionals I know they are. The paradigm in Ohio, and let me stress that the Worthington contract is just like every other contract in this regard, is that teachers are white collar professionals with a blue collar contract. Professional white collar workers have higher salaries, higher potential salaries, donít need to account for every minute of their workday and are treated with the respect they deserve. White collar workers would not be expected to perform duties such as watching doors or changing the text on outdoor signs. Intuitively, you donít take your highest paid and most skilled employees and use them for tasks which could be performed by lower skilled people. In exchange, they are expected to do whatever it takes to get the job done, they would not expect extra pay for every hour they put into the job and they would collaborate with their peers as necessary without a contract that specifies 5 minutes here or 7 minutes there. I was disappointed, but not surprised, that these concepts were considered too radical to even be discussed. Iíll add parenthetically that today, I attended the Citizens Summit on Ohio School Funding where apparently, the top 3 experts in the field of costing out a high quality education, in response to a question by our own Dr. Wilson said that the most important thing that states could do to improve education is the professionalization of teachers.

 

One example - I view the renewal article, section 18.2 as a step backward in our efforts, but I trust that Dr. Conrath and the WEA will work to the spirit of the agreement and not to the wording. I think both sides have underestimated the powerful forces of the status quo and I hope Iím wrong, but I think that Article 18.2 will come back to haunt us and Iíll say one more time that with professionalization, there would be no requirement for something like Section 18.2, it would simply be assumed.

 

My second issue was sustainability and affordability. If you look at the package through the prism of surrounding districts, the Worthington taxpayer should be proud of their negotiating team and grateful to our certified staff for recognizing the economic times, but if anything, this status-quo agreement serves to highlight the differences between the world of public education and the world of the taxpayer.

 

My first observation is that there were no changes to the salary index that rewards staff for longevity and education, a salary index that was meant to reflect inflationary increases but is now so old that no one in the administration can explain why it is the way that it is and a salary index which now represents, for a significant group of teachers, over half of their total raise. Education experts have said that in general, time alone does not improve a teachers performance. By refusing to address the index, both sides did little to stem one of the main cost drivers in the years ahead. For those teachers who will not be stepped during the three years of this agreement, the 2.85% increase is obviously reasonable. For those that will be stepped in all three years of this agreement, the increase is, in some years, in excess of 7% and this is, in my view, excessive.

 

My second observation has to do with health care. In the world of K-12 education, employees have been, for the most part, held harmless to the impact of societal changes in health care. Many people in Worthington are seeing skyrocketing costs. We are once again grateful to our teachers for agreeing to pay an increasing share of their health care, but as we view the package through the eyes of struggling taxpayers, the 86% to 90% employer contribution to premiums and the 60% to 70% employer contribution to deductibles may still be objectively viewed at excessive.

 

The bottom line is that this contract is reasonable in public-education. It represents compromise on the part of our teachers and it represents fairness on the part of our administrators, however, in this economy and with uncertain revenues, we are taking a huge risk offering raises in excess of 7% to anyone and another huge risk offering health care that does not cap the taxpayers liability. Before assuming such risks, I would have liked to hear the backup plan. What do we do if levys fail? What do we do if health care costs skyrocket again? What do we do if the state gives our money to someone else? If any of these things happen, do we have something better then to cut programs and threaten the community as so many other districts have been forced to do. This contract is clearly affordable assuming passage of the next levy, but what about the one after that, and the one after that? Is Worthington coming closer to a time when the taxpayers declining incomes meet the escalating costs (4.5-5%/year) of K-12 education and, if so, what are we going to do?

 

As to the vote, I really hoped that Worthington could lead in the area of teacher professionalization, but this contract offers nothing in that area but the status quo and a committee to look at alternative compensation. We need to find a way in Worthington to escalate the teaching profession to new heights, in respect, responsibility and salary for those who excel but we canít do it with a blue collar status-quo contract. My hope is that the compensation incentive committee broaden their scope to look at all facets of what it means to be a teacher in Worthington.

 

As for the money, I simply cannot, in good conscience, approve a status-quo contract without understanding what our strategy is for the long term and how we plan to mitigate the real risks outlined above.

 

For these reasons, I must regrettably vote no but in doing so, if this contract does suggest the requirement for a levy next year, I will commit publicly tonight to supporting thelevy if it is under 8 mills and itís my hope that we use this time to look not only at affordability in the short term but sustainability in the long term.††