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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 23, 2009

Fact finder says:
“Rectify salary disparity”

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — With the teaching assistants at an impasse — their contract expired over a year ago — a fact finder last week recommended a five-year contract that would increase their salaries to make them 80 percent of the average starting salary in the Suburban Council.

“Reaching this goal also will give the Teaching Assistants a relative salary position consistent with nearly all other units in the district,” wrote fact finder Donna Trautwein, Ph.D. in her July 13 report.

Trautwein also wrote, “During the fact-finding hearing, the district commented on Unit salaries being set through a regular collective bargaining process. One of the TAs who participated in organizing the Unit, responded that ‘from day one we were told this is what you’re getting, and that’s it,’ and they’ve accepted it since 1993.”

Pauline Myers, the president of the Guilderland Teaching Assistants Association, said yesterday, “The fact finder’s report agreed with us on how low we are paid compared to others in our own district and in surrounding districts. I would like to sit down again to start negotiations for a fair and equitable salary for the teaching assistants.”

District representatives could not be reached for comment yesterday, and the school board had not yet seen the report, but Lin Severance, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources, had commented to The Enterprise on the negotiations earlier, saying, “I think the most difficult — it’s like that rock and hard place — the most difficult part for the administration and the board when settling a contract is recognizing that there is only one pot of money and we need to pay everyone from that one pot of money and it’s kind of difficult to divvy it all up.

“If we were to receive more funding from the state or federal government, I think that districts would have a little bit more leeway in assisting some of these negotiations but it’s a very, very difficult time…”

In the last decade, the number of teaching assistants at Guilderland has dropped from about 300 to 210. They work largely in two areas — with special-education students, or in elementary classrooms, teaching reading and writing.

The $85 million budget that voters passed in May cut 22 teaching assistants for a savings of nearly $500,000.

Myers said that, after retirements and resignations, about eight teaching assistants lost their jobs. “I’m not sure how the cuts will affect the program,” she said, noting she was loyal to Guilderland. She has worked for the district for 18 years. “I’m dedicated to the children,” she said.

PERB process

Anthony Zumbollo, the executive director for the Public Employment Relations Board, explained that the fact-finding process is laid out in the state’s Taylor Law, and follows after there has been an effort by a mediator.

At Guilderland, an impasse was declared last September and both sides met with a mediator twice. “We felt we weren’t going anywhere,” said Myers.

The fact finder — in this case, a former assistant superintendent for the Capital Region Board of Cooperative Educational Services — then meets with both parties, holds hearings, and accepts documents, said Zumbollo.

While the fact finder’s report is not binding, Zumbollo said, “Having a neutral party make recommendations should move the process forward.”

 After a report is issued, the parties, he said, are expected to meet and negotiate.

There is no time limit and no process for binding arbitration, he said. “Some have gone on for five years past the expiration,” said Zumbollo. “If the parties really can’t reach an agreement,” he said, “they can ask PERB for additional assistance…more mediation help.”

He concluded, “Negotiations are difficult everywhere around the state right now.”

Fact-finder’s report

Trautwein’s report covers four issues, with salary being given by far the most weight.

The association’s position, she writes, is that the salary schedule is “simply uncompetitive.”

The teaching assistants at Guilderland are a separate bargaining unit under the umbrella of the Guilderland Teachers’ Association.

“The Guilderland TA salaries are lower than TAs in the other suburban council schools at all steps of the salary schedule, in addition to being lower than nearly all school districts in the region.”

Guilderland’s TAs are paid hourly wages according to a 25-step system, with salary increasing on each step. They are currently being paid according to the third year of the expired contract, Severance said earlier.

Those on the first step earn $9 an hour; those on the top, or 25th, step earn twice that — $18 an hour.

When compared to seven other school-related personnel groups in the district, the TAs’ salaries are “substantially lower,” Trautwein writes. “It takes TAs nearly 24 years to reach the step 10 salary levels of five of the seven groups. TAs are required to have State certification, and to meet various post-secondary educational and ongoing professional development requirements. The minimum job qualifications exceed those required for other school-related personnel.”

Teaching-assistant wages are $1.96 per hour less than the next highest paid group in the district and $10.57 per hour less than the highest paid group, according to the report.

The teachers at Guilderland have salaries that “compare more favorably, ranking 277th out of 636 districts statewide…,” writes Trautwein. “This places them in the 44th percentile, or below the middle but not at the bottom of the group.” Guilderland bus drivers, custodial workers, maintenance mechanics, and food service workers are all paid below the middle but not at the bottom. The school monitor position was the only one beside the TA’s paid lower than in other districts, the report says.

The TAs, Trautwein reports, asserted that the district is “well prepared to navigate the current economic downturn,” citing a large fund balance, modest enrollment drops, and decreasing contribution rates for the teachers’ retirement system.

The district, however, “strongly disagreed” with the analyses of the fund balance.

“The district’s position” writes Trautwein, “is that over time it has adhered to a philosophy of ‘living within our means’ with regard to collectively bargained wage and compensation settlements…The current proposal is a fair offer considering ‘declining revenues causing a shift to property tax owners; an inflation rate of less than 1 %; and negative prospective financial indicators such as the ballooning state deficit and expected sharp increases in mandatory employer contributions to the retirement system.’”

The report also says that the district is offering its earlier proposal of 3.5-percent wage increases, including increment, for each year of a three-year contract, not the 4.5-percent that was offered at the mediation session and rejected by the TA Unit, in contrast to the unit’s proposal for wage increases ranging from 7.9 percent to 13.7 percent over a five-year contract.

A summary of 11 current contract settlements provided by the district shows that percentage increases that apply to 2008 or later for 10 of the 11 bargaining units are less than 3.91 percent. The exception is the teachers’ unit, which settled for 4.7 percent, 4.4 percent, and 4.4 percent for 2008 to 2011; the higher settlement is because of extending the teachers’ workday by 45 minutes.

“Current economic conditions, including the recession, growing unemployment, the increased risk of home foreclosures, the collapse of the stock market, and the state deficit make higher contract settlements irresponsible,” says the report, summarizing the district’s position, “as well as unresponsive to input from the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee process.”

The district also asserts, “Any increase in compensation for the TA Unit is affected by the large number of Unit members…Guilderland employs the largest number of Teaching Assistants, 45 percent more than the next highest district.”

In making her recommendations, Trautwein states no evidence was presented suggesting that Guilderland TAs have a smaller workload than TAs in comparable districts as a result of the substantially greater size of the bargaining unit.

Trautwein also writes on issues pertaining to occupational therapy assistants and physical therapy assistants.  She says their salaries should be increased one-half of 1 percent in recognition of a longer workday, from seven hours to seven hours and 45 minutes.

The other issues that Trautwein writes about are retiree health insurance and unused sick-leave buyout at the time of retirement, for which she recommends no changes, concluding, “At this time, it is more important to focus District resources on rectifying the salary disparity.”

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