CN Column 05/07/10: Union bears some responsibility for deficit

Several months ago, my girlfriend came home from her classes—she is working toward a master’s degree in elementary education—with a survey she was charged with administering to a few people nominally unattached to the public education system.

I don’t remember precisely what the questions were, but they were mostly about people’s perceptions of public school teachers.

My initial, emotional response, after a long couple weeks covering the school system here in Naugatuck, back when the Board of Education was struggling to adopt an operating budget for the current fiscal year, largely reflected my generic opinion of unionized public employees in general—and mirrored the sentiments I’ve long heard purveyed by my father, a staunch conservative.

“Yeah, I should have been a teacher,” I remember saying (those exact words I’ve heard my father say at least a dozen times). “I’d like to be guaranteed a raise every year, work seven hours a day for 40 weeks out of the year and lock in a tenure-track position with an all-but-assured—and potentially juicy—taxpayer-funded pension waiting for me at the end of the line.”

Yes, I’m paraphrasing, and yes, my understanding of the issue has become somewhat more nuanced since then. I also imagine Stephanie, my girlfriend, got out of me exactly what her instructor was looking for, and he or she probably went on to tell her how and why I was completely wrong.

And wrong I may have been, but certainly the attitude I exhibited at the time is one I’ve seen echoed among residents and town officials as budget season draws to (I hope) its close. I also will submit I said all that before the teachers’ union agreed to a concessions package amounting to more than $500,000 in savings in the middle of a school year, which I deemed a generous move, though it wasn’t worth every dime the school board had hoped for.

At any rate, take, for example, Burgess Bob Neth’s comments at a budget review Monday (see story here). He asserted the teachers in Naugatuck haven’t taken a pay freeze in any of the 20 years he’s been involved in town politics, and issued an irate screed wondering why the school board hadn’t asked them to do just that for the coming fiscal year.

To my understanding, the school board agreed, as part of this year’s concessions deal, to make a “good-faith effort” to avoid asking for concessions until the teachers’ contract expires in 2012. Certainly, I’d like to see that agreement honored.

But let’s not lose sight of the fact that while 14 percent of teaching positions are being eliminated in 2010-11 (through early retirements, attrition and layoffs), the other 86 percent of teachers, who received a 3.25 percent pay increase this year, will get a 2.25 percent bump in 2010-11 and enjoy another 2.5 percent in 2011-12.

Seems to me the union would have agreed to a pay freeze, had its members truly wanted to save positions and preserve education—and if they really “don’t do it for the money.”

Hey, I work for my money to. I like my job, just the same as most local educators seem to. But we all work for a paycheck above all else, and to fulfill the ideals of a profession is to enjoy a personal and moral benefit.

So don’t kick and scream about possible cuts to teaching positions, if you won’t negotiate a zero-percent pay increase—especially when you know the borough is trying to freeze its budget for the third consecutive year, in the face of rising insurance and utility costs. No one wants to see cuts, especially cuts that will affect the educational program, but the general sentiment seems to be taxpayers can’t afford to keep pace with the ballooning cost of education in town.

It’s easy to demonize the school board, the superintendent and the borough financiers of the school system as the roots of the problem here in Naugatuck (while lionizing borough teachers, who do a fine job, as far as I can tell), but I’m inclined to look at the whole picture. Was there a lack of oversight on the school board’s and the superintendent’s part? Probably. Should the borough cease taking such a hard line on a zero-percent budget? I think there are arguments to be made that it could and should, just as there are valid arguments that it needs to hold the line. But organized labor is one big factor that is too-often overlooked.

And while I don’t have as strong an opinion of unionized employees as the editorial board at the Waterbury Republican-American, our parent paper, which recently referred to borough teachers as “The Confederacy of Greed”—a charge to which Charley Marenghi, the Naugatuck Teachers’ League Vice President and spokesman, responded thoughtfully and fairly—I am inclined to believe that organized labor bears as much blame as town officials for the school system’s financial woes.

To be clear, I applaud the teachers for making concessions to help the school board through this year’s budget. I think, as Marenghi wrote, they took a “proactive, progressive and cooperative” approach.

But to claim they have nothing to do with crippling budget deficits—which are, basically, the results of rising costs and frozen revenues—when educators’ union-bargained raises are a chief cause of said rising costs, is fairly ridiculous. The only ones who have nothing to do with budget deficits are the students.

I claim neither that all unionized workers are greedy, nor that all teachers personally agree with their union’s stance. I also have come to understand that a teacher’s life is far from an easy life.

But I do claim that teachers could save some of their colleagues’ jobs, if they were to sacrifice their raises in 2010-11, which will cost between $700,000 and $800,000. I’ve heard quite a bit of talk about a $200,000 savings, which could potentially be realized through a school closing, saving jobs.

I’m just saying, taking a zero-percent would save jobs too—and more of them.


1 Response to “CN Column 05/07/10: Union bears some responsibility for deficit”

  1. May 28, 2010 at 6:12 pm

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