Thursday, February 24, 2011

Questions and Follow-Up

I have been asked some questions multiple times. I am posting those questions and the answers here. If I get enough interest and emailed questions ( I will try to make it a regular feature of answering mailbag questions.

(The usual disclaimers are relevant here. I am speaking as an individual board member (with one exception noted below in the first answer); I do not speak for the board. The opinions expressed here are my own. YMMV, etc.)

Did the CCT (teacher's union) know that with the amount of givebacks there would still be job losses? Will they take a pay freeze this year?

The official board response is: "We remain thankful that the CCT was willing to reopen an existing contract and save the District more than 1MM dollars [this year] despite having no obligation to do so. While we offered the idea of a full freeze to save more positions, we were unable to reach such an agreement, and do not want to second-guess the 1MM savings that was achieved."

Why did you vote for the new deal with the teachers that extended the contract a year and "only" had $1.7 million in give backs?

I will give the short answer here. I am writing up the longer detailed analysis to be posted to this blog as soon as I finish. First, the CCT was under NO obligation to give us back anything. Certainly, there was some community pressure and depending on your point of view a moral obligation, but legally there was nothing we could do to compel a giveback. As noted in the question above, we certainly would have preferred to have preserved all jobs by having a salary freeze, but that was not our decision to make beyond our proposing it to the union. Also, even with a salary freeze, the pension benefits obligation for next year are going up by over $3 million. That would take an amendment to the state constitution to change.

Having said that, know that opening an existing contract and giving anything back is virtually without precedent. Second, without leverage of any real substance we got a strong union to voluntarily open the last year of an admittedly generous contract and if you take the two year obligation versus the contract and what they would be entitled to under the Triborough amendment to the Taylor laws, we beat that too in the second extended year. Third, by only going out 1 additional year, we kept the board's flexibility in the event that Triborough is amended, repealed or suspended.

Or, looked at it another way, if we had not come to this agreement and the existing contract was honored we would have had to lay off an additional 10-12 teachers beyond what is currently proposed. That would have certainly effected the program for the worse. Then, even if Triborough was repealed the second year and we could impose a freeze, it would have saved us $3.5 million the second year, the amount of step raises. By coming to the agreement we did, we preserved programs and LOCKED in savings that amount to 50% of what may be the maximum amount saved over the two year period of the agreement.

For those residents who only care about the bottom line and not about what programs we would need to cut, by opposing this deal, they want us to make a bet that it is a greater than 50-50 chance that Triborough is changed such that it allows us to impose a salary freeze in the event there is no agreement. It is my opinion that even in this current political and economic climate, that betting on our legislature in Albany whose second most political contributions come from teacher unions (healthcare unions are first) to throw Triborough out the window is a bad bet. It is certainly not a bet I am willing to take with taxpayer money and certainly not a bet that is worth gutting our program for this year with the 50-50 hope of saving next year. I disagree with those who say we should have waited for Triborough to be "thrown out". I think there is a less than 50% chance that happens or happens in a way that the district will not benefit from it.

This deal preserves the academic integrity of our program and locks in savings to the taxpayers of $1.7 million over the two year period versus what the district would have been legally responsible for.

Yes, of course, we would have liked to have reached a deal that had a salary freeze over a few year period (or more), but the reality of the situation is that we could not get that agreement. The accusation and implications that we didn't even try or could have done better are off base. Just as off base are the implications that the teachers have acted in any way less than honorable. Remember, they tore up an existing contract and gave up legal rights under the Triborough amendment in order to help the community.

As this board has been saying for the past two years and again this year, real change has to come from our legislators. This is playing out all over the country. Mandates, regulations and work rules have to change in Albany.

How do we save specific teacher jobs?

The short answer is that it is very difficult to do so. When reducing positions due to enrollment declines or program changes, we are bound by a state mandated LIFO system for layoffs. Last in, first out. The long answer is not much different, but involves what we call the waterfall affect. With LIFO, when reducing a program, it is not necessarily the teacher that taught the class who is laid off. It would be the person who has the least seniority who is qualified to teach that subject (and does not have seniority teaching another subject for which he/she is qualified/certified) who is let go. Certain subject areas become tricky. For example, foreign language is a subject in which you can be generally certified. If we eliminate a language such as Swahili, it may not be the Swahili teacher who is laid off. If the person with the lowest seniority in the FL department teachers Japanese, that Japanese teacher would be laid off and the Swahili teacher, even if he/she does not speak Japanese would be entitled under work rules to teach Japanese.

Do you have 5 year projections or do you just look year at this year and kick the can until next year?

YES, we have projections. The administration will be presenting them at one of our next few meetings. I will also take that spreadsheet and make my own projections if they differ from the administrations. Know that it is very difficult to make projections as much of the assumptions are out of our control. How much we will be contributing to the pension fund is one example as is the amount of state aid. We can make projections on salaries for several scenarios and show the residents the different possibilities. It is also very difficult to estimate tax rates in that we have no control over assessments.

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