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Can School Districts Work Together for Lower Salaries?

This unforgiving economic climate has dealt hard blows to many people working in the private sector. Those lucky enough to hold on to jobs do so knowing that, in this era, it is unlikely to expect ideal financial compensation. Many employees are paying larger benefit contributions and forgoing raises. As the pain persists and time goes on, eyes are turning to the public sector, where many say their own, harder-to-earn tax dollars are funding a better situation than what they themselves are experiencing. 

Nassau County has been working to negotiate a new deal with its primary union, seeking to remove what many found to be excessive items of compensation. Across local municipalities and at the state level, the microscope has gone down on the books and taxpayers are looking for change.

School districts account for the bulk of property taxes. In this arena, residents seek relief from a tax levy increase while boards of education face the challenge of providing an environment that 1) educates children properly and 2) keeps the value of property somewhere near the high values that brought residents into their communities in the first place.  

Each year, teacher salaries and health costs increase. Aid from the state and federal government shrinks while those same governments continue to push costs into school budgets. In Nassau, the county has added a multi-million dollar cost into upcoming budgets by forcing schools to refund incorrect tax payments. To top it off, New York’s new governor is bent on holding the increase from one levy to the next at 2 percent, without necessarily capping costs that the state forces schools to pay. With instructional salary and benefits accounting for 70 percent of the average school budget, some analysis projects that this will immediately create a major deficit in all New York schools, allowing for only $229 million a year in increased levies while personnel costs go up over $1 billion at the same time.    

So, residents are looking for both property tax relief and a feeling of equity, knowing that their own tight income is not directly transferring into a better situation for a public employee than they have at their own job. The first question they seem to ask is: how can schools control rising salaries and negotiate lower raises?

It is illegal in New York for districts to coordinate on the terms of negotiations with unions. So, locally, North Shore and Manhasset or Great Neck and Garden City, for instance, cannot agree on terms that they will all seek from their respective collective bargaining units. What this translates into, is if one district does negotiate lower salaries, they lose their best teachers to neighboring districts that are paying better. In Northport, for instance, the board managed to freeze the entire salary schedule in 2000, but so many teachers were “poached” that they were forced to renegotiate.  

Several Long Island districts have experienced this, including North Shore Schools, whose board hosted a meeting of school boards recently to explore how to work through this legally. Attorneys John Gross of Ingerman Smith LLP, and Greg Guercio of Guercio & Guercio LLP spoke about the legalities of regional teacher contract negotiations.

The gist of the presentation was: schools can cooperate in general terms on negotiation points, just the way they get together and agree on educational goals. The attorneys said that boards need to agree on “aspirational goals.” The term sounds redundant, but it means they are goals you aspire to together, but then negotiate individually. And, a major point they made was that you do not have to submit to confidential negotiations. Guercio said for transparency, he recommends not agreeing to confidentiality and involving the public in the process to some extent.

Along these lines, the attorneys said that it is perfectly legal to involve the communities in creating the aspirational goals that would lead to more mutually beneficial contracts with teachers across Long Island. North Shore Board of Education President Dr. Igor Webb added that the idea for this meeting began, in fact, through Manhasset’s Citizens Advisory Committee on Legislative Action, and the idea was to include not only administrators and boards, but any local residents with input.

The attorneys presented that cooperation was essential for negotiating salaries. “You can’t do this as individual districts,” said Gross, adding that the boards need to create a new structure for how teachers are paid. Currently, most contracts include both “step” or “increment” raises, along with “lane” raises, they explained. So teachers get an automatic increase each year plus an increase based on their own progress through their individual career track.

Teachers may not like to hear this, but Guercio explained the step or increment raise by saying, “You get an automatic raise if you still have a pulse.”

They offered some examples of how an average teacher salary would minimally progress over four years. Someone starting at around $44,000 would move up to over $58,000 by year four – increasing around 30 percent. A teacher at $57,000 would move to $71,000 in the same period – around 25 percent.

“If you add a lane move, you could have another 2 percent each year,” said Guercio. “You could be looking at a 4.5 or 5 percent increase.”

“You must do whatever you can to address the overwhelming majority of raises,” said Gross on increment raises.

The attorneys presented several possible ways to fight increment. The first being a “hard freeze,” meaning no more steps. This is a hard sell as well as a hard freeze.

 The second is “gates,” whereby at certain steps, teachers wait for their next increase. These gates could require a recommendation from a superintendent in order for a pay raise to be awarded.

Another idea was no increments in pay for the first three steps. This could be easier to negotiate because the teachers affected by this are not yet working for the district, so there is no objection.

In closing, Gross and Guercio said that regional cooperation between boards has made a big impact on budgets in Westchester. The main idea is that schools are allowed to use comparisons with each other during bargaining, and they can collectively establish goals and “bargaining disciplines.”

They warned against one-shot fixes like a freeze in raises one year that is made up for later. This is not a true savings. They touted a move in Glen Cove where a one-time bonus paid out was used to eliminate step payments, that being a true savings.

Some example goals they offered the group of boards included: multi-year freezes; the removal of steps; the delaying or freezing of steps; a probationary period with no increment; an increase in the amount of benefit contributions (they said in the private sector, employees are paying 13 percent more on average this year).

Webb closed the meeting telling the other school board trustees present, “We represent some of the best districts in the state and country. Our communities will radically change if the 2 percent tax cap goes into place… we won’t be able to solve this alone.”

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