The Portland School Board voted 5-1 last night to approve a new, two-year agreement with the district's teachers union, the Portland Association of Teachers. Board member Martín González was the lone "no" vote. But board colleague Trudy Sargent, who missed the last-minute meeting due to prior travel plans, sent a 3 1/2-page written statement explaining why she would have voted "no," too.
Following a tradition WW started in October when board member David Wynde offered an interesting and lengthy explanation for his "no" vote on the losing side of a School Board vote to close Marshall High, we're posting Sargent's dissenting opinion, which a district employee read into the record last night. Here it is:
I am very disappointed to be absent tonight from this meeting. I scheduled travel out of town this week when no school board meetings were scheduled. This special meeting was scheduled with knowledge of my inability to be present tonight. In my absence, I've asked that my dissenting vote and my comments be entered into the record.
I want to state my strong disagreement with the action the Superintendent and my colleagues are undertaking. In this difficult economy, with high unemployment and depressed wages in our city and our state, this district faces a serious shortfall in revenue that will require deep cuts to balance the budget. Our duty to our students and our taxpayers requires us to hold the line on all costs to maintain the quality of education we are providing our students. The Governor has advocated for, and I have supported, both a wage and benefit freeze for all employees. Instead of working with our largest employee group to keep the maximum number of teachers in front of students by freezing their wages and benefits, this district has chosen to give raises in this contract to all teachers and to allow health insurance rates to increase with no limit on the district's contribution.
If the district's revenue were rising, I would be happy to consider raises for our employees within the limits of the increased revenue. Comparison of our employees' wages with other similar employees, improved student achievement, and growing teacher workload could all be reasons to increase salaries if revenues were going up. Sadly revenues have fallen -- the state budget, K-12 education's share of that budget and federal stimulus dollars are all lower than last year. In fact, state funding for K-12 education has fallen in both of the last two biennia. The district's shortfall over current requirements is estimated at $40 million. Current requirements, however, include anticipated increases in wages and benefits. Some of those, such as PERS, are outside of this board's control. Others, such as cost of living increases, step increases and health insurance increases, are within the board's control. My colleagues will argue that they have held the line and the teachers' union has done their part by agreeing to no cost of living increase in each of the next two years. In this economy, I submit that is not sufficient. Step increases are significant raises, amounting to between 3 and 5 percent of salary. Half of our teachers qualify for these raises. Next year, all teachers, including those at the top of the salary scale, will receive similar raises. Those raises amount to $2.9 million dollars this year and $9.5 million next year. [Note from WW: The district's estimates say the pay raises will cost $2.4 million in the first year of the contract and $6.8 million in the second year for a total of $9.2 million.] That is roughly 33 teachers who won't be in front of students this year and 105 more teachers who won't be in front of students next year.
The savings from a freeze of teacher health insurance at the generous rate of $1,173 per month per teach in this year alone, previously estimated to rise by 9 percent, is$2.6 million, or 29 teachers. Next year it would equal $3.3 million or 36 more teachers. While this agreement calls for "efforts...to effectively control health insurance costs" and proponents will claim certain savings from those efforts, no savings are required by this agreement. No limit is placed on the district's responsibility to pay 93 percent of teachers' health insurance expense, whatever that expense turns out to be.
Combined savings from a wage and benefit freeze would amount to $5.5 million or more than 55 teachers in the first year, and $10.3 million or an additional 113 teachers in the second year. Millions more could be saved if teachers were subject to the same health insurance cap as all of the other employees in this district, which is slated to rise to $976 per month in October, and provides excellent health insurance for all of our employees.
In spite of the serious budget deficit this district faces, the unknown outcome of the ballot measures before voters in May, the budget uncertainty in Salem and the unfinished work of the union-management work groups established in our previous round of negotiations, this board proposes to settle this contract in honor of the positive collaboration that has occurred in the last few months with the union. Positive collaboration to me would mean finishing the work the union promised to do in the previous contract negotiations without holding that work up to get the new contract they want. Positive collaboration means supporting the bond to rebuild schools and the operating levy to save jobs without conditioning that support on the new contract they want. Positive collaboration means forgoing wage increases to protect the jobs of their junior members, the teachers we need in front of the students in this district. Positive collaboration means a union that understands that ever more expensive health insurance is not a sign of respect for their members but an expense that is bleeding this district and causing even larger class sizes to the detriment of our students and our teachers.
My colleagues and the superintendent will argue that they have achieved significant cost savings in this contract. The proposed high school schedule change is an example which is supposed to save this district $4 million each year. However, the schedule change is not authorized by the terms of this agreement. The district will budget for each high school's staffing based on a 6 of 8 funding level; it will not implement that schedule unless each high school staff agrees to a contract exception that permits this schedule, and that high school will face larger class sizes for students if the staff don't agree. A contract exception must be voted upon each year, so the union will have continuing power to threaten to veto that exception each year.
More disturbing is the fact that the existing contract permits this district to implement this schedule change without the union's agreement. Working collaboratively with the union to determine how to most effectively implement this change is a good idea. Allowing the union to dictate that this change must be agreed to by a vote of individual school employees on an annual basis is not collaboration; it is abdication of the district's management rights.
There are many other concerns I have about the existing contract and the ways in which it limits the district's ability to retain our most effective teachers and to run this district in a cost effective manner. The lack of a clear re-opener of this contract if the local option levy fails is irresponsible. The failure to restrict the use of seniority in lay-off decisions to even the exceptions provided in state statute, competence and merit, is unacceptable.
A broad coalition of community members led by Stand for Children, including communities of color, parent organizations and members of the business community, has indicated a strong interest in reasonable changes to this contract to benefit the children of this district. Support in the community for renegotiation of this contract has never been higher.
I wish I shared my colleagues' confidence in the willingness of this union to work in a productive and collaborative way with management of his district; instead I see a union that has once again engaged in a power play to get what they want for their members to the detriment of the children in this district.
I am a no vote on this contract.