How Employer and Employee Achieve Fairness

Last week, I sent the following unpublished letter to the Sakonnet Times:

School Committee Vice Chairman Sally Black gave an impassioned speech at the board’s meeting last Tuesday explaining why she voted unsuccessfully to approve the latest iteration of the teachers’ contract, despite likely cuts in state aid. As sincere as her reasoning may have been, it’s indicative of the mindset that has laid Rhode Island so low.
Mrs. Black cycled through a bit of education policy history to conclude that the state and federal governments have not followed through with promised funding for decades, even as they’ve demanded more and more from local schools. From her perspective, the school committee did the work that they were supposed to do, and moreover, she was very pleased with her children’s experience in the school system and believes the teachers deserve as much compensation as the town can give them. Her conclusion is that the contract is “fair and just” and therefore ought to be ratified regardless (apparently) of the town’s ability to pay for it.
Tiverton and all of Rhode Island simply can no longer afford to arrive at salary, benefit, and service numbers in that fashion. In every area of government functionality — from the development of laws to the expenditure of petty cash — officials must build policy structures to reach goals, instead of declaring the goals and then searching for some miracle bridge to reach them.
Good teachers deserve good pay, and the approach of the school committee member and the Department of Education official alike ought to be to determine the ways in which the system can be improved to bring resources and remuneration to those who deserve it while enhancing results. Insisting on the worth of all teachers as a group and then scrambling for revenue and workable reforms will ensure neither fair pay nor just results for our children.

My point, in sum, is that public officials — although many have no experience operating businesses — have a responsibility to behave as employers. When it comes to setting salaries and benefits, the employer’s duty is to maximize productivity while minimizing cost; the employee’s role is to maximize the remunerative and atmospheric equation toward his or her individual goals. Both sides, of course, ought to operate within moral boundaries that prevent either from taking advantage of the other.
Yes, it is possible for employees to take advantage of their employers. Observe the public sector unions in Rhode Island for an example.
The tendency of both the population and its officials to approach public employees from an incorrect perspective — even as unions push with all their might for the employees interests — became apparent in a conversation I had with an anonymous commenter on the Sakonnet Times Web site:

The new Tiverton teacher contract, which has not yet been ratified by the town, is actually for alot less than most other towns in RI and Mass. …
I am not in a union, yet I will be damned if I am going to accept less pay at my job than the local average compensation. And you are right, there should be a pay differential, Tiverton should pay a bit more than Providence, not less, because we want better teachers, not glorified babysitters like Providence and woonsocket. Good teachers flock to better salaries, as does any job.
My end point there was to point out that teaching is, even as it stands, a LOW PAYING career. You can make more, alot more, as almost anything else with a college degree. Yes, they choose to be teachers, does that mean they should choose to be near the poverty line as well? A family of 4 with $45,000 per year income qualifies for state assistance, yet people complain because teachers want SLIGHTLY more than that? With a 4 year degree? Give me a break. …
… you should wake up tomorrow and go to work and decide for yourself whether you are being paid fair market value for your job or not. Personally, I compare my salary and benefits against others in similar jobs to see if I am being paid fairly. I am. But many are not. RI teachers are paid a fair wage at what the contract state here in Tiverton. Other teachers in teh state make more, but not a whole lot more.

Put aside that the commenter compares teachers with families, often having two incomes to reach that amount. (Also put aside that it’s ridiculous for the state to give assistance to families with median income.) Two indications that his view is from the employee side, are:

  1. That he does not factor work environment into comparative salaries. Tiverton may want to lure the best teachers from Providence, but it can expect to discount the rate that it pays, to some degree, based on the fact that it’s a more comfortable place to work. On the flip side, Providence must pay more to attract good teachers, because fewer teachers want to work in the city.
  2. These considerations play out in a marketplace, which determines “fair” salaries more effectively than citizens poking around the Internet are able. The final indication that Tiverton is paying below market rate for its teachers shouldn’t be that a union in another town (or all other towns) has negotiated an even more outlandish deal; it should be that the town is having difficulty finding qualified teachers. That is not the case. Nor is it the case, as far as I know, that teachers are preparing to abandon the town for higher pay in nearby districts.

Just like the housing market, the job market fluctuates. I can do all the research I want to determine the average pay for my job in my area, but I must adjust my findings by my individual talents and flaws, and by other aspects of my employment that aren’t easily translatable into numbers. I must also realize that average salary information is next to useless if there are no jobs available that will pay more, no matter my expectations. So, over the past couple of years, my current employer has offered me advancement opportunities that probably wouldn’t have been available elsewhere, even were another company to offer more money. And now, the job market has shifted such that it would be foolish to jump ship in search of opportunities that aren’t available.
There is plenty of room to negotiate teachers salaries downward — most fairly by holding them steady. Moreover, there would be many more ways in which to work mutual benefit into employment relationships if there weren’t a union mentality that forces the teachers to behave as if they’re all identical cogs.

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George Elbow
George Elbow
15 years ago

Well said! Personally, it drives me nuts when I hear the two interrelated and most common defenses for the ever escalating teacher salaries: “We have to pay what other towns (e.g. Coventry) are dumb enough to pay, because we’ll lose good teachers.” That is utter crap. The misguided handwringers and the Union appologists pretend that a school district will somehow lose teachers enmasse if they don’t bend over at the Union’s command. Nonesense. Where exactly are the 185 teacher openings to which they are going to leave for? And keeping up with the Joneses has always been a recipe for disaster. We need just one or two districts to say “No F’ing more …and if you don’t like it, don’t let the door hit you on the way out”. Then, when people realize that these coddled Union hacks have no where to go, the rest of the districts will follow suit and bring the Salaries down to a more sustainable and appropriate level. Bottom line, districts need to start paying what they can afford to pay, not what the Unions demand. And if the Teachers can not afford to stay at those prices, fine, let them leave …to Providence, CF, Woonsucket and other garden spots. And it must warm Bob Walsh’s and Patrick “I struggle mightly with basic Math” Crowley’s heart to read that some fool actually buys into the myth of low teacher pay. You gotta hand it to ole Dumb and Dumber, they are indeed earning their pay in keeping that myth alive amongst the great unwashed. The Average Teacher pay in RI back in 2006 was ~ $54,000, which was higher than the median HOUSEHOLD income for RI. That is, ONE teacher earned more than the ENTIRE household of many …and that doesn’t include the near free… Read more »

15 years ago

“You can make more, alot more, as almost anything else with a college degree.”
I have a Masters, have taught at the college level in grad school and make $30,000 per year working 40 hours a week, 12 months a year. I guess I should go get a teaching license; I’d gladly work 9 months a year for half again what I make now!

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