I support our teachers – I don’t support the Teacher Contract

Hi,

Below is an email response I recieved from Debra King the president of the Watertown Educators Association when I asked her to respond to my blog post about the meeting they are holding next week.

The concept of giving the town “flexibility” with respect to raises or step adjustments would be disastrous for the Watertown Public Schools. The concept is antithetical to having a contract at all. No school district in the Commonwealth unilaterally adjusts teacher salaries. Teachers would flee the Watertown schools for other districts exacerbating the already alarming turnover rate.

Teacher salaries in Watertown already lag behind neighboring school districts. We’ve had 40% turnover in the last three years. The school committee downplays the significance of the high teacher turnover rate, but as teachers, we know the value of instructional continuity. Familiarity with the school and community’s expectations is an asset for the district. We’re losing talented teachers to other districts. This can’t continue. What’s more, the real problem is the “flexibility” that the school committee currently has in determining how to spend its $34 million budget. The contract dispute is not about money. It’s about priorities. We argue that the school committee should invest in its most important asset: teachers. Our schools simply can’t continue to remain uncompetitive in our effort to attract and retain

My response
Hi Deb,

Thanks for the response. A few comments and questions about your statements.

Again I want to state this clearly. I support our teachers, want to see the quality teachers recognized, paid highly for their dedication, passion and the long hours they put in with our children, but I also realize that there are constraints placed on our local government that we have to operate within. These are the same constraints placed on any for-profit business or non-profit organization.

I do not support guaranteed pay increases when simple accounting shows a negative impact on the town’s ability to continue providing consistent services.

Regarding Flexibility

  1. Would you please expand on and explain how giving Watertown administrators the ability to react to external revenue/expenditure forces creates a disastrous environment for our schools?

Without the option for flexibly responding to outside economic forces the town is left with few options other than laying off employees.

Follow up questions to #1

  • How do you and the WEA propose the town government respond to the current and projected trend of town expenditures out-pacing revenues/taxes? With the state mandate that local governments provide a balanced budget the only option presented so far has been to lay off teachers and reduce staff/services in other departments. The school budget directly impacts and is impacted by other areas of revenue and expenditures in the town.
  • Would you please describe how a contract that provides the town with flexibility to respond to annual changes in revenue and expenditures is in direction opposition or antithetical to a contract? I’m proposing that changes be made to our existing contract with the WEA and that those modifications would allow for pay increases when revenues are available. Providing guaranteed increases when our revenues can not cover our costs harms the entire community. There are dozens of other pages in the teachers contract – I’m not proposing that those are modified or removed so I don’t see how my proposal is incongruous with a fair and reasonable contract.

At two public meetings this year I have asked the WEA publicly to turn down salary/step/longevity increases so that we could save teaching jobs. I was told each time by the WEA that they believed that school administrators were “holding out” or “hiding money” in technology and other program areas. I’ve reviewed the budget on my own, sat with the business manager and superintendent and I didn’t find monies.

Earlier in the spring I sat in a tiny 2nd grade chair while members of the WEA pointed out specific line items that should be looked into. They were, and the justifications provided by the administration satisfied me. Even if the administration had removed the specific items that would still would not close the deficit. The Watertown Educators Association made their intentions clear when they were willing to layoff their co-workers and fellow teachers so that other, older teachers would get their steps, raises and longevity payments. That does not sit well with me, as I would have a hard time seeing a friend and co-worker of mine have their employment terminated while I picked up a raise, no matter how insignificant.

Regarding no other districts unilaterally adjusting salaries
This is the same argument that was recently made by the Watertown Contributory Retirement Board in regards to their recommendation to increase the Cost Of Living Adjustment base. “Everyone else is doing this so we should too.” This is an unsatisfying argument – and one that I probably used as a teenager when I asked to stay out later. “But mom! … all my friends can stay out later than me!” I think we all know the standard mom/dad response to this argument.

The Massachusetts Municipal Association has stated in recent reports that most municipalities in Massachusetts are facing similar financial challenges, due mostly to poor management of retirement health care benefit (OPEB) and pension plans. The WEA argues that large numbers of educators are going to “flee” from Watertown if sustainable financial change is implemented. I believe that argument carries little weight when this same scenario is playing out in almost every city and town in Massachusetts.

Regarding Salaries
The WEA states that salaries in Watertown “lag behind neighboring school districts”.

  1. Would you please show your data that backs up this statement? Which districts are you comparing Watertown with? Is their socio-economic demographic and tax base similar? What are the deficits faced in those communities for their Pension and Other Post Employment Benefits liability? Each of those variables along with many, many others must be factored into what a “neighboring school district” looks like.

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education school district profile data shows:
2009 Watertown average $67,816
2009 Belmont average $69,479
2009 Waltham average $66,111
2009 Newton average $76,609
2009 Arlington average $59,343

The US Census American FactFinder states that in 2009 the median full-time wage earner in Watertown made just about $54,000/year. It would be great to see both the average teacher salaries and the median wage in Watertown increase.

While our average is not as high as Newton it isn’t as low as Arlington. The Department of Revenue data shows that our tax valuation isn’t nearly as high as either of those communities either. The Kennedy School of Government document that I’m reading seems to indicate that salary is only one component in a challenging mix of variables that factor into how teachers decide to work in a particular district. I haven’t yet formed a full opinion or summary of that document yet but the document is a great read.

Regarding turnover rates
You state that Watertown has had a 40% turn over in the previous three years. I agree that consistency and continuity are important in creating a healthy work environment. Some questions:

  1. How many numbers and percent of the teacher turnover is a result of teachers retiring?
  2. How many numbers and percent of the turnover is a result of maternity leave?
  3. How many numbers and percent of the turnover is a result of layoffs?
  4. How do you define a “talented teacher”?
  5. How many numbers and percent of the teachers that have left the school district were considered “talented teachers”?

Related to how the school committee spends the $34 million budget.
Anyone interested in seeing exactly how the $34 million is spent can visit the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website and realize that the bulk of the monies goes to teachers. I agree that there may be small line items that might be questionable, but at the macro level I completely disagree with your statement that town and school priorities are not focused on teaching staff.

Another item that is rarely discussed or well known, regards the true cost for departments in the town. While the $34 million dollar school appropriation figure is fairly well known, what isn’t clear is that the actual spending in the town for education is closer to 46% when health care costs are factored into the mix. Watertown is spending nearly 50 cents of every dollar on education, so I can’t agree when people argue that our community isn’t placing our primary focus on educating children. I have asked Tom Tracy to help provide the data that supports this statement – I’m still waiting on it but I do believe him, town councilors and the Town Manager when they have said it.

Regarding your statement that the contract dispute isn’t about money – that it is about priorities
I’ll bite…

  1. Would you please clearly state the specific sticking points that are causing the impasse?

Without question I agree that we need to provide an employment environment that is competitive so we can attract and retain high quality teaching staff but providing that competition MUST NOT be to the detriment to the overall financial stability of the town.

I support our teachers – I do not support this type of contract.

Thanks,
Matt

One thought on “I support our teachers – I don’t support the Teacher Contract

  1. Intriguied

    Matt, I find your article intriguing and useful, but I think you have to take into consideration things that data cannot as well. School climate for a teacher in Watertown is very difficult. Young teachers, have young families, and large debt as teachers need to get a M.Ed. in their early years to obtain professional licensure from the state of MA. These young teachers have to go where they can earn money to pay for their student loans and their families. This is no different than someone seeking employment in the private sector. Most young teachers in the district have second jobs to help cover this, on top of their full time teaching jobs, and working summer school. So the argument that they have the summer’s off doesn’t work. Add to this the climate where many view you as in adequate at your job without even meeting you or watching your teaching; while people post such insults in papers and online… it doesn’t make for a good working environment. Then worrying every year will you have a job, will you make enough money to pay for your bills? Yes many people in this country are facing the same issues. But at the same time many people in this country are not serving as a scapegoat for the towns of this nation, blaming greedy teachers- who are working well over 60 hours a week, so they can do the job they love, teach- while still making enough money to cover the bills. Teachers do not have the liberty like other town employees who negotiate contracts (police and fire) to make up for losses in contract funding with overtime and details. If they could, the town would certainly go broke. Most teachers in the district work well beyond their contract hours. The fact that many in this town are enraged by the teachers “work to contract” actions is puzzling? If anything it should make us examine how much teachers do outside of that contract. If it is so detrimental to their child’s learning perhaps it should be part of the contract? Watertown teachers are going above and beyond every day and to be punished for the actions of the minority of teachers who are not as “talented” as their counterparts is just disrespectful. Administration should do their part and take responsibility for handling these situations, they are not without power or a part in that minority. In every aspect of the working community, for profit, non-profit, and public service this minority exists, and no this minority does not always lose their job. I would ask that you not only take a look at the data for teachers, but also the data for the town. I also ask that you take into consideration the people involved.

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