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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 10, 2011

With art by Forest Byrd

When money is first, children aren’t

“Children First” is a familiar phrase. We’ve seen it on teachers’ mugs and on buttons worn by school administrators. That principle was a guiding force in shaping the Guilderland superintendent’s $89 million budget proposal, and the governor has used it, too.

Andrew Cuomo recently issued a statement praising administrative cuts as “school districts across New York…find ways to reduce costs and put children first.”

Turning administrators into scapegoats is not wise, and not good for children. The state, with its ever-growing regulations and ever-changing standards, has greatly increased the need for school administrators.

In our decades of covering local schools, we’ve interviewed scores of administrators and found, by and large, they are hard-working people who got their jobs precisely because they put children first.

This is not to say that every job, from the top on down, shouldn’t be scrutinized to see how a district could be run most efficiently. We were pleased Guilderland’s new superintendent, Marie Wiles, said she would analyze the district’s current administrative structure with an eye towards efficiency.

“Form follows function is the idea,” Wiles told us. “We need to start with what we want to accomplish and design backwards.” Her phrase —“Form follows function” —  was coined by architect Louis Sullivan and popularized by his apprentice Frank Lloyd Wright. Sullivan shaped the landscapes Americans now think of as defining cities — he designed Chicago’s steel skyscrapers in the late 1800s. As industry pushed America from a largely rural agrarian economy to a city-based one, new technology allowed a new form of building. The purpose of Sullivan’s buildings determined their form.

We don’t know if the school day or the school system’s structure can be reshaped to be more efficient but it’s worth a try. In the meantime, we urge citizens to keep their minds and eyes wide open.

We can see frustration building on two sides — parents and students are upset to have programs and people they value cut while, at the same time, cash-strapped residents are distressed to have to pay a proposed increase of 4 percent in their school taxes. Since we published a story last month about the Guilderland School Board negotiating a contract with 10 administrators, granting a 3.5-percent retroactive raise the first year of the contract and then two annual raises of 2.6 percent, we’ve received angry letters and phone calls.

The best course at this time would be for the district not to give raises to anyone. Period.

Responding to citizens’ complaints about the raises at a board meeting last month, the school board’s president, Richard Weisz, said “We still have some work to do, educating the public on legal restraints with collective bargaining.”

He went on to ask, “Why can’t we freeze wages?” Wiesz emphatically answered his own question: “Because it is against the law.”

But there is nothing illegal about negotiating a contract with no raises.

Weisz also said, “I believe, when you cut a deal, you cut a deal for better or worse.”

In December, Guilderland was in the midst of or on the cusp of negotiating with half of its 12 bargaining units, including the two largest ones — the Guilderland Teachers’ Association, with 494 members, and the Guilderland Employees’ Association, with 208 members.

So, the district has a golden opportunity, without re-opening contracts or reneging on former agreements, to control costs.

In fact, a year ago, as the school board struggled with decreased state aid, stagnant property values, and increased costs for pensions and health care, Weisz said, “The contracts we’re asking people to revisit this year are over next year. We could say, until there’s more state aid, because we can’t afford it, there will be no raises.”

Three-quarters of Guilderland’s budget, typical of schools, is made up of salaries and benefits. Salaries are set through negotiated contracts, and pensions are based on those salaries.

School board members, as elected representatives of district residents, have the power to control school spending. One taxpayer who wrote us recently said school board members suffer from “Stockholm syndrome” — the psychological phenomenon where hostages come to adore their captors. Board members are often close friends with the teachers and administrators and want to support them. In tough times, the best support is to reduce salaries and save jobs.

Guilderland cut 56 jobs last year and another 44 are slated for the chopping block in 2011-12. How many of those could be saved if salaries were reined in?

Weisz has cited the 1982 Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law as hampering the district’s power to negotiate. The amendment states it is improper for an employer “to refuse to continue all the terms of an expired agreement until a new agreement is negotiated….” According to the New York State Public Employment Relations Board, the Triborough Amendment requires the status quo of a contract to remain in effect unless it has a sunset clause.

With the Guilderland teachers’ contract, for example, the step increases would have to be paid, but the yearly raises — 4.4 percent in the third year of the contract — would not. Guilderland teachers progress up a 23-step schedule. A teacher on the first step in 2008-09, the first year of the contract, earned $42,000 while a teacher on the highest step earned $71,909.

The Guilderland Employees’ Association, which includes bus drivers, custodians, and food-service workers, agreed to a contract last June, ending 15 months of difficult negotiations. The retroactive two-year contract runs until June 30, 2011. The GEA had originally asked for 5-percent raises in addition to step increases, but ended up with just the step increases and no raises. “When we first went into negotiations, the times weren’t so bad,” said the GEA president at the time. “It kept getting worse and worse. We were in fear of losing more employees than we already are.”

Times are still worse now and the teachers, under the current budget proposal for 2011-12, stand to lose 30 jobs. Again, we wonder how many of those jobs — and the programs and benefits for children that go along with them — could be saved if the teachers went without raises.

Asked if the $89 million proposal includes raises beyond step or longevity increases, Neil Sanders, the assistant superintendent for business, told us this week, “We have estimated the potential impact of salary. We made good-faith estimates of the funds we need in the budget to cover the salaries and benefits.”

Sanders declined to give a dollar figure for the amount, explaining, “We want to negotiate a contract without telling what’s in the budget.” He did say, “We’re not expecting the contracts to settle at the levels they’re expiring at; it will not be the current level.”

The Guilderland school district and its teachers’ union are proud of their collaborative approach to bargaining. In flush times, good work — like that performed by the vast majority of Guilderland teachers — can be rewarded with raises. In these times, we urge both sides to see the merit of saving jobs and programs — putting children first — over giving raises.

The most frequent argument made for raises — from high-level administrators all the way to the rank and file — is that the top salaries are needed to attract top people. As we’ve stated here many times before, the best teachers and school workers are those who work for the love of the job and the children. With the last hired, first fired rule followed by most unions, who wouldn’t want to be part of a group whose members each took a little less so all could work?

The Triborough Amendment doesn’t work as an excuse in a town where the unions of town workers — public employees subject to the same Taylor Law — have gone without raises for the good of their fellow workers and the community.

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