Laffey Hosts the East Greenwich School Committee

We at Anchor Rising have been posting about the education problems in Rhode Island since the site’s inception. (Here is a comprehensive rundown of every post we’ve ever made.) One topic we continually revisit has been in the liberal bias in Higher Education (see Justin’s recent post, for example). However, our primary focus continues to be the broad debate, which covers many issues, that can be generally classified as Teacher Unions vs. School Committees. (One of my personal goals is to supply a “voice of the parent.”) To continue the coverage, below is a rough recap of the conversation this morning on the Steve Laffey Show on WPRO (AM 630) held with members of the East Greenwich School Committee (Sue Cienki, Marilyn J. Friedemann and Steve Gregson in studio while William Day called in briefly). Also see Don’s related post below.

To start, Laffey mentioned the latest news of a mediator stepping down (story here) and makes the point that a common tactic of teacher union leaders is to denigrate any school committee proposal as “another example” of how school committees are “disrespecting” teachers. According to Laffey, no one ever is disrespectful of teachers or the job they do, they just don’t like the unrealistic demands of teacher unions.
Marilyn J. Friedemann, a lifelong East Greenwich resident, graduate of East Greenwich High, left for a while and returned to discover she didn’t like changes in town. So, she ran for school committee. She knew that she was in for a fight, had informed herself of the situation and, as a lawyer, simply knew it wasn’t a pretty picture.
Steve Gregson described that the current impasse was over three major problems: salary, health care coverage and co-pays and the healthcare buyback program. The latter of which currently stands at 50%, which in East Greenwich is equal to around $6500.
Laffey explained the buyback program. Essentially, if an employee has a spouse who has a family health care plan, a town will pay a teacher, in the case of East Greenwich, 50% of the cost of the family plan ($6500) as a “reward” for not participating in the plan. Additionally, this is a common practice relating to nearly all public service-type union contracts in Rhode Island.
Gregson stated that they proposed reducing the buyback figure in $500 dollar increments over the next three years (ie; $6000, $5500, $5000).
Friedemann stated that additionally, according to the town council, the current projection is that the buyback would be increased to $7300 because of higher health care coverage costs. [As health care costs increase, teachers receive more money back!] Gregson also mentions that, of the other two items, salary and health insurance, the two sides are close on salary. Also, the School Committed has had United Healthcare and Blue Cross competing for East Greenwich business and they attempted to have United present some of its proposals to the union, but the NEA (National Education Association) wouldn’t let their people hear United’s proposal.
Laffey asked what exactly was the School Committee’s proposal?
Friedemann answered that it was a 6%, 8%, and 10% co-pay, respectively, over the next three years, to which Laffey responded that the union didn’t want to pay any. Friedemann confirmed this.
After a break, Laffey remarked that he wanted to thank the the Cranston crossing guards for bringing these types of contract issues to the forefront. He also mentioned the recent “proposal” by the Warwick teachers union (see story here), in which, after negotiating for 1 1/2 years, they decided to then throw in that they wanted full health care for life for all family members. He remarked that he been in a lot of negotiations and he’d never seen anything like this and found it outrageous. Personally, he found that most teachers he talks to just want to teach and don’t want to get into contract disputes.
Returning back to the point regarding the E.G.S.C. health care co-pay proposal, Laffey remarked that a 6-8-10% co-pay doesn’t mean that health care costs are going down.
Friedemann mentioned that the E.G.S.C. keeps “negotiating against ourselves.” Over the majority of the past 37 meetings, many by the previous school committee, they had said they wouldn’t go below a 20% co-pay. However, in reality, while the E.G.S.C. keeps saying “this is it,” they then lower their demands while union makes no concessions.
Laffey agreed that, yes, “you have to draw line in sand” at some point. He observed that they should be paying 20% noted that the average American pays 23% of their health care insurance.
After a break, and after a recap, Laffey mentioned that, in addition to the already mentioned factors, pension costs are also going up. In eg, the pension will be $500,000 this year and $1.5 mill next year.
A caller from North Kingstown mentioned that in her town, health care was a sticking point and the teachers got more than a generous co-pay.
Gregson mentioned that the numbers in the North Kingstown agreement were 5%, 7.5% and 10%, but that the School Committed capped the actual payments at dollar amounts considerably less than those numbers.
Laffey explained that this was a “scam deal.” A school committee may say that the unions agreed to pay percentages, but caps on dollar amounts make effective rate 5% or less. [In other words, those percentages are not real and are provided for public consumption only.] Another caller, from Cranston, mentioned that the situation in Cranston was not one to inspire confidence as two of the Cranston negiators are too beholden to Cranston teacher unions because of past political relationships.
Laffey agreed, and remarked that the another aspect of the problem is that education dollars are being spent on teacher compensation and not on the students.
The caller responded that a high percentage goes to teachers, but that doesn’t mean the rest goes to the students. Much of it must go to building maintenance and other infrastructure and administrative costs. The caller also mentioned that teachers complain a demand for co-pays equates to being anti-teacher.
After the break, Laffey asked the E.G.S.C. members, “How did you budget, not knowing potential settlement?”
They responded that they had to make a best guess and went with an 8% co-pay and 3% salary increase. To this, Laffey observed that this sort of tipped the school committee’s negotiating hand. They group responded that, yes it did, but it showed that they were being fair. As such, it is good for the public to know where the committee stands.
Laffey thought that was a good point. On the particulars, he remarked that a 3% raise is good in today’s economy and that an 8% co-pay isn’t that big. He then moved on to talking about a differential on prescript drugs (between generic and name-brand).
Gregson mentioned that a mail order program can provide savings, but no one participates in it.
Additionally, adds Cienki, they can also raise insurance deductibles to save money. In reality, 80% of people never really access health insurance.
Laffey mentioned that health savings accounts were another option. They are portable and let people realize how much health care really costs.
A caller observed that, in an op-ed in the Providence Journal, it was proposed that schools shouldn’t be funded via property tax. Asked the mayor why he, or the E.G.S.C., hadn’t organized with neighboring towns to unify school systems to strengthen negotiation stance.
Laffey stated he had two thoughts on that. 1) Small schools with local control are good, so savings on administration costs may not be worth it. 2) He’s been writing on school accountablity. If schools sent out their own tax bills, people would see where budget increases are occurring and taxes are rising.
Caller remarked that, in small, provincial RI especially, there is a myopic attitude held by city/town councils and school boards. They simply don’t look across town borders because they want to protect themselves for self-serving reasons. As a result, citizens are paying for poor performance in schools.
Cienki mentioned that East Greenwich is working with the Southern RI collaborative on issues like busing and books. It is insane that small East Greenwhich (2700 students) negotiates for school books by itself and thereby pays more for books than if several districts got together and ordered more books, which would result in cost savings on a per book basis.
A caller asked why the teacher negotiations weren’t done in public, to which Gregson immediately responded that, simply, the unions don’t want them to be. The caller responded that that was “important for people to know.” He also brought up that, given the extreme accommodations made by the E.G.S.C., and these are just tip of iceberg, there are other topics, such as work day length (6.5 hr vs. 8 hr) that could be renegotiated. If the big proposals are met with continual rebuffs, why not just go for REAL reform?
Gregson observed that, in fact, many bargaining points had actually been “bargained away” from under the purview of the school committee. Nonetheless, the big things needed to be addressed first.
Friedemann mentioned that the union was being increasingly vitrioloic, especially in its latest press release, and the E.G.S.C. just wanted to negotiate. “It’s about percentages not about how we veiw teachers.”
A caller informed the panel that RI hospital has 50% buy back program to which Laffey quipped, “no wonder health care prices are skyrocketing!”
A caller, who identified himself as “an NEA member, but not a teacher,” stated he would like the union to offer tiered deductibles for medical insurance as a way to save money. Gregson responded that that was the kind of proposal that United Health Care had, but reiterated that the union leadership wouldn’t let United’s proposal be heard.
Friedemann remarked that the union leadership doesn’t seem interested in reform and their vitriol doesn’t help. “We don’t feel the same way about them as they apparently feel about us.”
A caller remarked that many teachers seem to feel they have to be aggressive and antagonistic in negotiations.
Laffey mentioned that RI ranks as the top spender per student in the country and points out how high property taxes needed to pay education fees also can result in forcing the elderly, on fixed income, from their homes. He also mentioned a Wall Street Journal article about a school choice bill in Arizona (which pays $8500 per student vice $12000+ in RI). He asked how the E.G.S.C. members felt about vouchers and charter schools.
Friedmann and Cienki both favored choice and stated that competition is good, though it needs to be balanced.
Laffey amplified that, yes, it must be remembered that the unfettered capitalism at the turn of the 19th/20th century brought about the need for the unions. They were needed, but now the pendulum has swung the other way.
A caller [properly] commented that parents and taxpayers need to get involved and lamented that we needed a Reagan like figure that could inspire and lead.
Laffey returned to the Arizona bill. He remarked that they pay 30-40% less per student than RI, plus have to educate many Mexican immigrants. If the governor vetoes the school choice measure, the legislature is ready to pass another that makes choice available for special needs students. This will be done to remove the oft-used objection to charter schools and vouchers that all of the best students would leave schools in trouble and would thus lower the performance ratings of these already troubled schools.
A caller stated that there is a federal law that says states must educate children of illegal aliens. Laffey thought it a digression, but noted it is a relevant issue in Providence. He then asked the E.G.S.C. members for some final words.
Friedmann said that, in the end, they’re working hard and have spent lots of time on health care trying to be fair and reasonable. They are interested in quality eduction and in being financially responsible. It is part of their job to look out for the taxpayers’ money, both those with children in school and those who don’t have children in the system. Finally, Gregson remarked that his daughter is graduating from college and is going to be a teacher. She received a wonderful education in East Greenwich. “We are not against the teachers.”

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Anchor Rising
19 years ago

Rhode Island Politics & Taxation, Part XIV

This posting continues a periodic series on Rhode Island politics and taxation, building on thirteen previous postings (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII). More specifically, this posting is about the teachers’ union contract…

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