Gary S. Ezovski: Better schools — Tie teacher pay to family income
Gary Ezovski, Chairman of the North Smithfield School Committee, offers these thoughts in a recent ProJo editorial:
I can comfortably say that I have yet to hear a suggestion that will solve the schools-budget challenge in our community or throughout the state…
The business of education is nearly 80-percent labor. Payroll and benefits are where we need to make a difference. The real issue is that our cost of labor is among America’s highest, and not one suggestion has been made to take that issue by the horns. We must take control of the single largest cost in education.
Let’s do what the Education Partnership has talked about and change the balance away from union control to what serves the interests of students. Let’s tackle three critical areas of salary and benefits on a statewide basis.
Most commonly, between 40 and 70 percent of teachers in each district are at their contract’s top step. The total cost of salary for top-step teachers statewide may be our single largest payment in education. Beyond that, these salaries are the driver for all others in the system, since they are the metric to which the others move.
For anyone who has been involved in a Rhode Island teacher-contract negotiation, it is plain that the negotiations constantly surround how the negotiating district compares with all other districts in the state.
Why did Coventry set the top-step target for so many years? Whatever the reason, the paradigm must change. How do we do that? Waiting for 36 school districts to do it is not sensible.
Rhode Island has the ability to act as if it already were one school district. Legislative action is needed to limit top-step teacher compensation.
That can be done by connecting top-step pay with average Rhode Island family income and state aid to education. If a community’s top-step teacher salary exceeds, say, 1.3 times the Rhode Island average family income of a baseline year, then the district’s distribution of aid for education should be reduced by the same percentage of the excess.
At the same time, we must immediately freeze and ultimately set a timeline to eliminate lanes — extra pay for teachers’ levels of education — and longevity payments as a means of hidden supplements.
Two other issues that are a constant source of challenge in contract negotiations for all municipal employees (teachers, fire, police, DPW, and city hall) are health care and sick time. Each of these must be streamlined to a single statewide program. We must stop purchasing health care as a result of what might be as many as 200 different collective-bargaining negotiations programs in our 39 cities and towns. Our small state can establish one program to establish fairness for employees and affordability for taxpayers.
The program established very recently for the Cranston Teamsters unit should be studied as a model to follow. Even the retirement provisions should be equalized. Should one community grant health care for life while another provides nothing? Wouldn’t one statewide program streamline the local negotiations process and create cost-efficiency for all taxpayers? Should a community that displays self-control have to pay the bill for waste in those that spend gratuitously?
Sick time also requires a single solution to stop senseless disparity between groups within the same town and around the state. We need legislative action to create a sensible program for all municipal employees that allows no more than six to eight days per year, coupled with mandatory employee participation in temporary-disability insurance (TDI), plus an employer-provided long-term-disability insurance product.
Beyond creating uniformity, such a program could increase attendance, decrease use of substitutes (which will improve student achievement), and eliminate career-end golden parachutes, while also creating a respectable benefit for employees that includes reasonable short-term coverage and valuable disaster protection. Wouldn’t that be better for employees and the taxpayers?
In short, I believe that we can create reasonable controls and guidelines for our 39 cities and towns and our 36 school districts without a statewide contract or a statewide school district. With good controls, we can keep government close to its people, prevent waste in gluttonous districts, and sustain the resources for redistribution of our current dollars to districts that can use them efficiently to improve student achievement.
If you have suggestions to fine-tune or expand on these ideas, please send them to me, at firstname.lastname@example.org, to your state senators and representatives, by logging on to www.rilin.state.ri.us, or to Governor Carcieri, at email@example.com.
A very thoughtful editorial, indeed. Let our elected officials hear from you.
For more information on public education issues here in Rhode Island, check out the various writings at the bottom of this posting.