Stepping the Taxpayer Back

For some reason, the Sakonnet Times publishes different letters online and in the paper. Therefore, I can’t link to a letter of mine in the current edition. By all means, pick up a copy, but here’s what I wrote:

To the editor:
Tiverton School Committee Member Leonard Wright made himself the union’s champion when he declared that the district “should find another way to balance the budget” than “putting [teachers] behind” — that is, seeing a decrease — when it comes to their combined salaries and healthcare in the pending contract. Moments before, he’d asked Director of Administration and Finance Douglas Fiore to calculate the effect on teachers already at step 10 of one of Superintendent William Rearick’s options for keeping the district’s budget balanced.
For readers not familiar with the intricacies of collectively bargained teacher contracts, the step system is essentially a guaranteed raise for the first ten years of the teacher’s tenure. Every teacher moves forward a step every year, until step 10, at which point their raises are limited to increases negotiated with each contract. The trick of the strategy (some might call it a scam) is that the unions negotiate those percentages to apply to every step, so newer employees’ raises include not only the step, but also the global increase.
Following the previous contract, teachers moving into steps two through nine are slated to receive raises between 5.6% and 7.3%, with those moving into step ten receiving 10.6%. That’s independent of any negotiated increases. So, when you read that Mr. Rearick is proposing a raise of 2%, or that the union is demanding an increase of 3.5%, they really mean that those percentages would be added to the steps. You can do the math. The percentages don’t mean the same thing as the raises most of you get from your employers. (None of this, don’t forget, takes into account additional teacher pay based on education, longevity, and extra responsibilities and activities.)
When it’s time to negotiate, the union puts forward its most experienced members (currently earning in the mid-sixties, as a base) and decries their meager advances. At the same time, however, it requires that every teacher in the district — newest, oldest, best, worst — benefits by the same amount. For their role as leverage, those at the top get to be the only teachers who stand to see a decrease in their take-home pay (around $1,000 less for the year) under any of Mr. Rearick’s proposals, assuming they take the healthcare benefit.
If that result is unfair, the step system would seem to be the place to look for equity. After all, in 2006 (the latest year for which information is available), the union’s members claimed around 55% of the district’s total expenditures. In a time of tightening belts, average guaranteed raises over 6% are a bit much to demand.
As a Tiverton property owner, I’ve noted reports that the Town Council may increase my tax rate by as much as 12.2%. That’s several hundred dollars to every homeowner in the town. Why, I wonder, does Mr. Wright think it’s fair to put us behind? Oddly, I didn’t hear a single school committee member suggest finding another way to balance the budget than taking the maximum allowable increase in tax revenue.

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