Sunday, April 17, 2011

When the School Budget Gets Defeated Again

There’s obviously some kind of disconnect between the school board and voters in the school district. For the past decade, the townsfolk have been crying No Mas! No Mas! Yet, with the exception of one year, the school board keeps voting to raise taxes.

This year, they’re understandably in a bind, having to transition between administrations, but you can already tell how they’re planning to deal with the next budget defeat.

I remember a school board meeting in May, 2008. The budget had just been defeated and Dr. O’Malley, new to the position, was explaining how they were cutting the budget. The big ticket item was replacing the roof at Cambridge Park. I asked Dr. O’Malley if the “spending cut” was going to cost the district more money since the roof would still need replacement plus immediate maintenance. When he was slow to answer, I said, “It’s okay to say ‘yes’."

Well, guess what’s back on the budget and sure enough the price has gone up 21% since 2008 – Roof Replacement, Cambridge Park, $454,485

Expect that item to be the first thing to go overboard when the budget fails. The roof is about 40 years old and does need to be replaced but I suspect they’ll wait until they finish their ADA obligations and then use a “payment plan” for the roof like they did for the football field.

As usual, employees provide the bulk of the expense. Despite all the agonizing cries of yesteryear when Dr. O’Malley slashed the employee rolls, I’ve not heard any stories of the district collapsing. (I did inquire regarding the stories of violence and there does seem to have been a temporary upsurge but that appears to have been quelled.)

I believe we can cut still more. Outsource where you can and transition some non-core programs to after-school programs. Right there is over half a million dollars. There’s a couple hundred thousand more by allowing class sizes to rise to twenty children. From there, we need to “convince” certain employees to retire and then eliminate those positions. That would be another half million. In the high school, we can offer some students to swap their first class for an online class and give them a late start.

After that, we need to bend the cost curve. As the budget shows, in a single year without any major layoffs, "Personal Services - Employee Benefits" is up 10.5%. As those benefits keep skyrocketing, the school district will have no choice but to keep firing personnel.

And the only place to bend the cost curve is in contract negotiations.

One thing to beware in contract negotiations is retroactive pay increases. For example, let’s say the board awards a 3% pay increase with no retroactive pay. School boards tend to promote the teachers are only getting a “1%” increase because that’s the hit to the current budget but the 3% increase creates a new baseline that lasts forever.

Another gotcha is abuse of the salary guide – teachers garnering $9,500 pay increases for worthless degrees that do nothing for the students.

Then there is the endless number of past practices agreed to by prior administrations. No superintendent could possibly know all the past practices but the union does, with written proof going back decades. Any contract that doesn’t address past practices is an invitation for more union abuses.

Finally, I would ask the board to make one more change. Do not sign any contract before a non-binding resolution has been voted upon by the district residents. Before the school board votes upon a contract, allow the community to have their say. After all, it’s the residents who’ll be paying for it.
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Friday, April 8, 2011

When the Teachers Union Goes Too Far

This week, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie called teachers union leaders “political thugs”. At the same time, the people of Wisconsin repelled the national labor unions who attempted to overturn an anti-union law by electing a left-wing state supreme court justice. Meanwhile, anti-union bills and executive orders have been marching forward in other states across the country.

It’s a dramatic turnaround from two years ago when the nation elected the most pro-union president in our history.

So, what happened? In short, the unions overreached during a financial crisis and refused to share in the national sacrifice.

As for why there’s so much animosity towards public unions, here are a few local stories from my short stint on the school board.

When unions work for private companies, they understand that if they demand too much the company will go bankrupt. Public unions have no such restraint. When the custodians were about to be outsourced, rather than offer meaningful concessions, the union leaders shamelessly demanded we raise taxes to the max and then distributed flyers claiming the school board was endangering the children just to save a few bucks.

That part the public knows. What the public didn’t know was that the custodians had sent signals to the administration that they were willing to take pay and benefits cuts to save their jobs. They were willing to meet us part way. But their union representatives refused to allow them to make the offer. The custodians considered creating a separate union but there wasn’t time. And they were warned against acting without union support.

In other words, any chance the custodians had of saving their jobs was stomped by their union representatives. As for the “infamous email,” I and the other school board members still retain a copy ready to go public in case the union leaders “misbehave”.

The same thing is going to happen to the transportation personnel. They may have dodged the bullet this year but it’s going to happen. Holmdel just outsourced their transportation department. The bus drivers have sent signals to the administration but the union won’t allow them to negotiate to keep their jobs. The union would rather see the bus drivers fired than offer job concessions.

There was the time we hired a wonderful young lady who was excited to secure a job with good pay and benefits during a recession. When we hired her, she agreed to a salary that placed her among the top half of school employees.

After she began work, her union leaders told her she was being grossly underpaid, that she was doing “administrator” level work, and that she must demand fair pay. Sure enough, within a couple months of starting work, she filed a grievance against the district demanding a 60% salary increase.

A few months later, the superintendent provided the board a long list of possible cuts. Not one board member suggested keeping this woman and she lost her job.

Then there’s the administrator who was grossly negligent in administering a district-wide exam. Rather than fess up, he participated in a cover up. When the board learned the truth, they withheld his raise that year. In the private sector, most people would have lost their jobs but the district has spent thousands of dollars in legal fees defending its right to withhold the employee’s raise.

There was another employee who filed a grievance against being moved to work at another school building within the district.

There was the grievance when the district decided to stop paying teachers for speaking to each other. There was the “Aberdeener Grievance” demanding the school board attempt to silence me. And the list goes on.

It’s no surprise that tenure charges haven’t been successfully brought against a single New Jersey teacher in over a decade. The teachers union is actively involved in “screening” administrative judges who review alleged legal violations. For example, we had one case of an employee who kept disappearing during the day. After a couple of warnings, the employee was fired. The judge ruled we had given the employee insufficient warning and terminating the employee was unduly harsh.

When a grievance involves contractual issues, the district goes before a mutually agreed upon arbitrator who gets paid by the hour. At the state level, the teachers union maintains a list of preferred arbitrators and these arbitrators won’t get jobs if they find themselves on the teachers’ naughty list. (Imagine the outcry if the school district colluded with other districts on such a list.)

At one arbitration hearing, the arbitrator declared that proctoring your own exam to your own class during your scheduled class time was a “non-teaching duty”.

Meanwhile, since the administration can’t fire any of the teachers, we have to beg and plead with them to do their jobs.

One-third of high school students regularly fail the HSPA Math exam. Not coincidentally, that’s the department where the teachers union president happens to work part-time for full-time pay.

The teachers labor contract specifically sets aside time for 30 hours of “professional meetings”. During one of those professional meetings, the high school math teachers were asked to review the HSPA Math test to review where we should tweak the curriculum to help the students.

The math teachers objected to reviewing the test data without additional pay. “Data analysis” wasn’t part of their job description.

Not only does the staff have a 7% absentee rate, sometimes they simply choose to take time off. We had one instance of an administrator who didn’t show up for work for months. When we demanded a doctor’s note, we got a letter saying she suffered from wrist pain.

On the Friday before Christmas, one-quarter of the staff regularly takes the day off.

One time, the union told the teachers to stop helping children off and on the bus until the district agreed to pay extra. Fortunately, that time the teachers openly rejected their union’s demands.

The district spent thousands of dollars training teachers to post their information on the school website but only a minority of teachers have done so.

Meanwhile, the district receives numerous complaints from district teachers upset by their union’s actions but they have no choice. By law, the teacher must belong to the union. By law, the teacher’s salary must be confiscated to support the union.

In Matawa-Aberdeen, the district pays the union about $1,000 per union member that otherwise would have gone to the employees. The union then uses a large portion of that money towards “advocacy”, i.e. political campaigns.

It wasn’t lost on any of the board members when Marty Ruprecht sat across the negotiating table from the guy who recently spent thousands of dollars helping Marty get elected. (To Ruprecht’s credit, he never gave the union any special consideration. It’s also funny to note that the teachers union campaign to oust Ken Aitken set in motion a chain of events that led to the destruction of Barza.)

We had teachers who were so bad we had to shift them into special programs to limit their exposure to students. But when the budget cuts came, we had to save the bad teachers and fire the good ones.

Then there was the occasional story of the teachers lining up by the school entrances in a show of force to send a message to the parents – We have your children.

Then there are the teachers who do terrible jobs but think they’re doing fantastic. On these pages, one teacher (CB) publicly proclaimed that he was proud of his record and challenged me to hold him accountable. The guy teaches an enrichment class to some of the best students in the grade and still a majority of his class scored below 70% on the standardized exams. But he, the proud teacher who once did me the honor of reading my blog aloud at a public meeting, is boasting that most of his kids scored above 50%. Talk about your low standards.

The overwhelming majority of teachers are good people who want to do the right thing. But teachers shouldn’t be surprised when the public judges them by the actions of “union thugs” the teachers elected to represent them. And they shouldn't be surprised when board members are forced to act in the best interests of the people they represent.
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