Statewide Teacher Contract

Since I discussed the idea of having a statewide teacher contact, many have asked for a more detailed statement as to my reasoning and the components of such a proposal.

This idea would need legislative action. I had asked my Representative, Jan Malik, to introduce such legislation in the past. He did. It died without action.

This idea is to create a statewide contract for teachers’ wages and benefits. The unions, AFT and NEA, would negotiate directly with the state to arrive at the terms of the agreement.

The rationale behind this is that local school boards are usually the first step on a political ladder. Many who run for office are of the ilk that are former school teachers or their relatives and those who are sincerely dedicated to the best interests of the students.

The unions, when negotiating contracts, send in negotiators. These negotiators, having negotiated several contracts across the state, are no match for the lambs sitting on the school board. While school board members are nice people, they are no match for skilled negotiators. School boards members, for the most part, will probably negotiate a multi-million dollar contract once in their life. Union negotiators do several each year.

Think about it. A buzz saw facing off against someone who’s biggest purchase last year was a washing machine. While it would make sense to hire experienced negotiators, most school committee members do not wish to shirk from the duty they were elected to perform or they see the hiring of a negotiator an unwarranted expense in times of tight budgets.

As a result, we have a tilted battle from the onset. The saddest part of it is that these less than seasoned elected officials with little experience with negotiating multi-million dollar contracts, actually have control of one-half or more of the property taxes of most communities.

Aside from the obvious disadvantage, there is a divergence in interest. I have long held that school committees engaged in contract negotiations should have their priorities as students first, taxpayers second, labor third, while the unions should have their priorities as students first, labor second, taxpayers third. Both sides will naturally state that it is the student first, but once you get off the public relations line, the truth is that the intended clash is between labor interests and taxpayer interests which rightly sits as the second priority of both.

This is not to say that educators are not concerned with the students. We are not discussing teachers. We are discussing the union who represents teacher issues. Never confuse the two. Both have distinct functions in the system.

Union negotiators have a job focused on getting the best contract for the members, as they should. School board members need to focus on getting the best contract for the taxpayers. Both sides should recognize they have the student as the common first element of the equation.

A statewide state negotiated contract, as I had proposed, would not eliminate school committees, instead it would free them from the burden of financial negotiations and allow them to concentrate on the improvement of education policy matters for their system, what I see as the true role of a local committee.

By funding education on the state level, the general fund could be utilized, shifting taxes to an income tax and relieving property taxes. This too has a benefit. Under the current system which utilizes property taxation to fund schools, the elderly, the poor, and those on fixed incomes are severely penalized. By putting it largely on the income tax, it would impact on those earning wages, and, incidentally, the very people who are most likely to have school age children.

This is not a tax saving plan, but one designed to most logically fund education. There will be no savings in that the burden of education will merely shift from property taxes to income taxes.

A side benefit is that in moving away from a property tax base for education, it will encourage business location in that they will not be paying local property taxes, instead shifting their costs to the wage earners they will employ.

This plan has its potential failures. The negotiations will be put into the hands of the Assembly where many former teachers and union members dominate. If this system were implemented without adequate checks and balances, the outcome could be devastating.

However, if the plan includes a mandate that the contract be two years in form, signed on or before the filing deadline for candidacy for elected office, and in election years, this would allow for a check and balance on the actions of the Legislature.

The Legislature would have a free hand to sign a contract. Going too far in labor’s direction is possible, but they would have to face the voters that very November. Going too far against labor’s direction puts them at odds with labor’s strong electing presence. Sounds balanced, doesn’t it? Sounds like a win-win for the people of Rhode Island.

Additionally, in this approach, there is only a possibility of a statewide teacher strike. All students will be out of school or none of them will be. The Governor, under the Rhode Island Constitution, has the power to call the Assembly into session, and the Assembly, in November, would be convened to address the strike, but what strike would there be if the contact had been negotiated by June of the election year? In short, unless the Assembly and the unions fail to agree, there is no strike.

There would need to be some adjustment of ancillary laws, but this would not be difficult. There would need to be a judicial mechanism for responsible parties to be judged by the courts, e.g. union leadership being liable for prosecution as a party in an illegal strike instead of the teachers. There would be a need for provisions that the contract could only be re-opened on the vote of 4/5 of the Legislature. There would be a need to have an actual written contract to protect the unions against retroactive legislation, especially after the reorganization of the legislature in light of the November election after the approval of the contract.

Under my proposal, there needs to be a look-back when setting the wages. By this I mean that an arbitrary period be chosen and used as a benchmark. Once set, the benchmark could be used to calculate the differences between current contracts and the statewide one. While this sounds complicated, it really isn’t.

By taking a year, say, for example, 2011, and calculating the variances between district contracts, that will set the mark for the variances between communities in the master state contract. For example, if the average were X for all teachers in 2011, and say one community paid 3% higher than X, then in the statewide contract, the educators in that community would get 3% more than the statewide X. This would keep parity without impairing the economic expectations of the teachers in those communities who have relied on their current contract in planning their futures.

This plan is not without problems in need of resolution. Perhaps the most difficult obstacle will be the reconciliation of the system in that some communities allow for Social Security in addition to the teacher pension where others do not, but this issue is not insurmountable.

As is its norm, the General Assembly has requested and received a study report on the feasibility of a statewide contract. The report was ambiguous in that it said it could potentially provide a savings or it could potentially derive a savings, dependent on how the system was implemented. Gee, we needed a study to conclude this.

But, the bottom line of the study was issue related to the payment of Social Security. If this is the only major barrier, then I find that such is merely an excuse for not wanting to go down this road. Yes, there would be savings if the state contract did not include Social Security payments. No, there would be a greater expenditure if the teachers were all in Social Security. But what about the middle? Couldn’t this be negotiated away? You could at least consider possibilities of having those on remain on and those on being without that benefit. If this is not possible under federal law, you could continue to have the communities where they gave this benefit, continue to pay it until the teacher no longer works in that system. My point is that there are ways around most problems if we seriously think about them.

Union leadership does not favor this plan in that it makes them work harder for their dues. As such they have already been spreading the word that such a plan will injure the rank and file teacher and this idea is somehow anti-teacher.

Is it? I ask how it would harm the individual educator by having a different contracting authority, other than the obvious of the union having a distinct advantage in bargaining with inexperienced school boards.

The benefit of allowing the local boards to focus on matters truly related to student performance and such would be a godsend to most dedicated teachers.

This is not an effort to balance a budget on the backs of teachers. It is far from it. It is an effort to better organize and operate a system that is required by our constitution. It is in the best interest of all the public and not at the expense of the working teachers.

Consolidation is in the best interest of state policy in a place as small as Rhode Island. To continue to operate in an inefficient manner defies logic. It is for this reason I propose this plan.

Since funding is a separate and distinct part of education, I urge the reader to peruse my various papers related to education found in the document section of Bob Healey’s Campaign Journal.

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