Union Misdeeds, Part I: Teachers Sacrifice Their Own

It appears from two recent stories that some unions should take an oath of "do no harm" to their own members. In Maryland, veteran teachers resorted to extreme measures to earn a 1% pay raise — at the expense of the jobs of their colleagues with little or no seniority. The Education Action Group asserts:

The Harford County (Maryland) school board has agreed to eliminate the jobs of 72 teachers and administrators in order to fund one percent raises for veteran members of the local teachers union.
“Although our teachers undoubtedly deserve a fair pay raise, this proposal also comes with a cost—the loss of both administrative and teaching positions,” County Executive David Craig said in a statement, according to BelAirPatch.com.
One percent is not enough for one union member.
“I appreciate with my whole heart the step that you all have made today, but one percent is $20 that doesn’t fill my gas tank to go to work,” Amy Childs told board members, according to ExploreHarford.com.
Of course, that won’t be an issue for the 72 employees who soon won’t be traveling any farther than their couch each morning.
Even though the wage agreement is a bad deal for the community as a whole, board members likely felt pressured to approve it. Harford teachers have been picketing for the past two weeks, as well as conducting a “work to rule” campaign, in which teachers limit “their duties and activities to only those specifically required as part of their contract,” Examiner.com reports.
Harford teachers refused to “volunteer at lunchtime or, beyond the school day to tutor students or, run extra-curricular clubs and activities. Teachers did not enter school until the start of their contractual time and left immediately after their contracted day was over,” the news site reports.
So the veteran teachers had a tantrum and got their way. Their raise will mean fewer teachers and larger class sizes for students, but hey, what do they matter?
Needless to say, the layoffs will mostly affect younger employees with little seniority. They may be union brothers and sisters when times are good, but when there’s only so many dollars to go around, older teachers are happy to eat their young.
We wonder if the union would have pushed for the raise/layoff deal if the school board had the right to choose which teachers were laid off, regardless of seniority?  Probably not.

This School Board Deserves ‘A’ Grade

"Change" is not a four-letter word. And, despite what many seem to believe, it’s not always bad either.

Change is especially important when it comes to K-12 education. Reformers often appropriately use the term "kids first" when it comes to our educational priorities. Too many times, however, "adults first" is the prevailing philosophy. That has to change (there’s that magic word again) and it is in one Ohio school district.

Check out the excerpts from an excellent report by the Education Action Group:

Springboro’s old philosophy was like that of many public school districts: Teachers were given annual “step” raises and administrators received nice salary perks, whether there was money in the district’s budget or not. If the district couldn’t afford it, voters were expected to approve tax hikes to pay for it all, or accept cuts to student services.

That old “adults first” approach was on full display in 2009, when district officials chose to address their financial woes by eliminating busing for high school students, laying off 30 district employees, and raising pay-to-play fees for after school activities.

Not long after that, Kelly Kohls, a mother of five and a former college professor, joined the Springboro school board and a new “children first” philosophy began to emerge.

Kohls’ approach of challenging the “business as usual” mindset has proven very effective. The district now requires employees to contribute more for their health insurance plans. Backdoor bonuses for administrators have been eliminated, annual teacher “step” raises have been frozen, and a variety of spending cuts have been implemented.

The results are evident in the school’s financial trajectory. A few years ago the district was projecting a $30 million deficit. Today it’s projecting a $4 million surplus, even though the community is still reeling from the weak economy, which has caused a 400 percent increase in the number of people needing assistance from the local food bank, according to Kohls.

Kohls’ self-described “kids first” approach has caused a lot of heartburn among Springboro’s school establishment. During her brief tenure on the board, district officials have publicly blamed Kohls for the defeat of a $6 million school levy, the departures of a superintendent, a district treasurer, a school board president and the large turnover in school administrators.

Members of the Springboro Education Association – the local teachers union – use school board meetings to excoriate Kohls for opposing teacher pay raises and proposing budget cuts.
“Some people get so entrenched in the old philosophy that it’s tough to get them to think whether or not something is going to help the kids,” Kohls says of the criticism. “We need a different way of thinking.”
Voters seem to agree. Last November, they elected two of Kohls’ allies, giving fiscal conservatives control of the five-member school board, which began its current term in January.

Kohls says her approach has been to “ask a lot of questions” and to explain the board’s spending decisions to the community.
During her campaign for school board, for instance, Kohls asked why Springboro taxpayers were paying both the district’s and administrators’ contributions to the state retirement fund, especially since high school busing had just been cut to save money.
She reasoned that the amount of money spent on the retirement perk ($180,000) should be used to reinstate high school busing ($125,000). Kohls shared her proposal with the community on the Educate Springboro website and now the administrative perk is gone.
When the district’s health insurance costs increased by $830,000, Kohls proposed that employee contributions be raised to 20 percent – in line with what average Springboro residents paid – to offset the extra costs. She thought it made sense, especially since the district was in the middle of a financial emergency that left schools unable to purchase new textbooks or make basic building repairs. Her fellow board members at the time didn’t agree, and the district absorbed the increase.  
But Kohls used the Educate Springboro website to bring her case to the public, and the philosophical shift became evident.

“People started looking at the other four board members, and asked, ‘How could you say yes to the increase?’” Kohls says.

Today, employees pay 15 percent of their health insurance costs, and the district has joined a health care consortium which has resulted in nearly $6 million in savings.

Since January, the new board has enshrined its “children first” philosophy in a series of 28 goals, which include setting district money aside to help prepare students for the ACT test, among other things.
The board has switched to zero-based budgeting, meaning that school budgets will not automatically increase every year. Instead, teachers are being asked to submit annual budgets outlining specific resources they need.
The board is also developing policies that prioritize district spending, to ensure that student-centered spending needs are met before employee benefits and wage increases are considered. Kohls is crafting a point system to determine which employees will receive bonuses from the leftover funds.

Education Reaction: They Really Do These Things

We’ve noted here before some strong reporting on K-12 follies by the Education Action Group. A recent newsletter from the group was different, sadly, by the volume of news and developments across the country that reinforce the concept that far too many people still put the adults ahead of the students.

Consider the following:

  • A student in Danville, Illinois who made online comments about contract negotiations between the school district and teachers union was reportedly harassed by a teacher
  • In Franklin, New Jersey teachers seeking a larger pay raise picketed outside of the home of the school board president. The volunteer leader was not home, but his daughter was there to witness some of her own teachers "attacking" her father.
  • National Education Association membership is declining as several states have freed teachers from compulsory union membership. While union leaders have verbally (and beyond) assaulted state and local officials for cutting aid and seeking union concessions during difficult economic times, the NEA is now cutting employees and asking its affiliates to do with less.
  • Meaningful education reforms in Washington state were stopped in their tracks by Democratic lawmakers. The reaction from one major Democrat fundraiser:  “It is impossible to escape the painful reality that we Democrats are now on the wrong side of every important education-reform issue. Today, the (teachers union) is literally strangling our public schools to death with an almost infinite number of institutionalized rules that limit change, innovation and excellence." Seattle Times columnist Lynne Varner adds, “People are starting to see the light about the Democrats’ intransigence.” Refusing to stand up to the special interest teacher unions could be “a matter of political life or death” for the Dems, she adds.  

‘First, Do No Harm’ Should Apply in Schools

Far, far too many times criticism of K-12 education is seen as an attack on teachers. In the vast majority of cases, it’s not the educators in the classroom (or anywhere in the school building for that matter) who are standing in the way of what is in the best interests of students.

Consider these recent cases from around the country (courtesy of the Education Action Group):

  • For one Michigan educator, the annual costs of “non-membership” in the local, state and national teacher unions total $544.28. Andrew Buikema has been trying to leave the union since last spring, when he realized that union leaders were uninterested in helping the district control costs, even in the face of a multi-million dollar deficit.

“They keep asking for more and more, even though the school district can’t afford it,” he told EAG. “They’re concerned about taking care of the adults and have no consideration for the kids. I don’t want to be part of an organization that says one thing and does another,” he said.   

The union responded to his resignation request last month by sending approximately 150 pages of documents. The upshot of all those documents is this: Buikema can technically quit both unions, but he must still pay them $544.28 in “service fees,” which equals 67.7 percent of a normal union membership.

  • These days a lot of school budgets are being held together by the accounting equivalents of bailing wire and duct tape. But one Pennsylvania school district is so broke that it needs the state to provide the wire and the tape.

The Chester Upland School District began this week with only $100,000 in its savings account, and had no way of meeting its $1 million payroll – that is, until a judge ordered the state to give the district a  $3.2 million advance in its allowance.

The money will allow the teachers to be paid and the lights to remain on, at least for a few more weeks. The district is on track to be $20 million in debt by the end of the school year.

Since 2006, Chester Upland’s enrollment has dropped by almost 1,000 students. During that same time, the district has increased its workforce by 145 employees and its budget by $28 million.

  • Florida’s Marion County school district drew national headlines last summer when it announced that it was switching to a four-day school week as a way to save money. 

Other school officials took a more conventional route by laying off teachers and cutting student programs, all the while blaming Gov. Rick Scott for underfunding Florida’s public schools.

Now comes a report that finds 946 school employees in the Sunshine State earned at least $100,000 in 2010. That’s up 818 percent from 2005, according to the Foundation for Government Accountability.

The foundation also finds the percentage of non-school employees who earn at least six-figures has increased by only 7 percent during that same period.

 “During these five years, you have flat student enrollment, the biggest recession since the Great Depression and skyrocketing six-figure salaries – that adds up to a raw deal for Florida parents and taxpayers,” says Foundation CEO Tarren Bragdon.

Union Balks, Schools Lose $60 Million

Teacher unions have a strong stake in maintaining the status quo. Not exactly a news flash, I know, but this report from the Education Action Group outlines how far they will go (or what they will give up) to prevent evaluations of their members based on performance.

Makes one shake his or her head — at the very minimum.

A year and a half.

That’s how long New York City’s teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, had to agree to a new teacher evaluation system that would have allowed New York Public Schools to receive $60 million in federal aid.

The money was part of President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, and would have gone to help 33 of the district’s lowest-achieving schools hire more teachers and instructional aides. 

In order to get the money, all UFT needed to do was approve a teacher evaluation system that contained some measurement of student learning. The evaluations would have been used to determine teacher tenure and future employment.

But UFT President Michael Mulgrew insisted that an outside arbitrator be used to decide cases involving teachers who received an unsatisfactory job review.

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said that would only add “a burdensome procedural layer designed to keep ineffective teachers in the classroom,” thus undermining the entire purpose of the reform.

When it was clear late last week that the union would not budge on its demands, New York’s Education Commissioner John King Jr. pulled the plug on the $60 million.

 “The failure to reach agreements on evaluations leaves thousands of students mired in the same education morass,” King told the New York Post. “Until the grown-ups in charge start acting that way, it won’t be a very happy new year for the students.”

Like all teacher unions, the UFT always insists that it has the best interests of children at heart. But not even $60 million earmarked for improving bad schools was enough to persuade the union to beef up teacher accountability standards, which means the students lose on both counts.  

“Actions speak louder than words” might be an old adage, but it certainly applies here.


Pension Abuse: Work a Day, Collect a Few Million

Pension systems of all types and sizes seem to be in some form of financial trouble. And yes, there are various stories of people taking advantage of loopholes to improperly, if not illegally, benefit.

But this is a bad one about teacher union lobbyists who became substitute teachers for a day in order to be in line (based on their lobbyist salaries) for big paydays down the road.

The Education Action Group reported the following:

The Illinois Teachers Retirement System, by the way, is millions of dollars in debt. That means it currently lacks the funds to meet its obligations to real teachers who will retire in the future and genuinely deserve their pensions.

One of the lobbyists, Steven Preckwinkle, will receive about $2.8 million by the time he turns 78 and $3.8 million by the time he turns 84, according to media reports. David Piccioli will collect $1.1 million by the time he’s 78 and $1.7 million by the time he’s 84.

The two lobbyists and the Illinois Federation of Teachers have paid approximately $230,000 into the pension system. Sounds like these two will make out pretty good.

But the story gets even worse. Now we hear about Reg Weaver, the former president of the NEA, who is drawing $242,657 per year from the Illinois state teachers pension system, based on his top salary working for the union. Most teachers pensions are based on their top salary earned in the classroom. Weaver topped out at $60,000 before he went to work for the union.

All of these situations were created by loopholes in a state law that allow union officials to tap into the teachers pension program. As Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield told Education News, "The people that are on the inside and understand the process are going to be able to make the system work to their advantage."

Sadly, it’s the taxpayers and average teachers on the "outside" who get the raw end of the deal.

Fort Wayne Area Teachers Split From ISTA

The Education Action Group has been doing some solid reporting in recent months on its Hoosier Report Card dedicated, in its own words, to "grading education reform in Indiana." A recent entry on the troubles of the Indiana State Teachers Association:

We’ve heard from many Hoosier educators who dislike the Indiana State Teachers Association’s collective bargaining and political tactics. We’ve written about how the ISTA has granted substantial raises to its top officials as its membership numbers have slid and school districts struggled to meet the union’s financial demands.

In Northwest Allen County Schools, those frustrations with the ISTA came to a boil last week when educators voted overwhelmingly to disassociate themselves from the statewide union. Northwest Allen County Education Association President Alan Bodenstein told NewsChannel 15 that local union leadership had been considering a split with the ISTA for about a year. About 150 of the district’s 350 teachers are represented by the NACEA, which was affiliated with the ISTA and the National Education Association.

NACEA members voted 111-17 Thursday to break ties with the ISTA and become an independent bargaining unit for several reasons, including “cost, dwindling membership and differences over tactics and perceived effectiveness,” the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette reports.

“The financial piece of it, there’s always the political part of it, but I think for me, the biggest part was our membership was starting to dwindle and we needed to figure out a way to build a stronger local,” Bodenstein told NewsChannel 15. “If our numbers go up locally our administration will have to listen a little bit harder to what we’re saying.”

The split is an interesting development at a time when the ISTA is pulling out all stops to recruit more members. The union is struggling to justify its relevance with recent collective bargaining changes that now limit union influence in schools.

NACEA educators apparently believe that they will attract more members if they disassociate themselves from the ISTA and NEA, a clear sign that the union’s rhetoric is wearing thin with some teachers.

Ultimately, the move will give the district’s teachers a greater say in school operations and teacher compensation, because the local union will not be forced to heed the selfish desires of ISTA bosses. The NACEA can now ensure that educators won’t lose their jobs and student programs won’t suffer to fund unnecessary union perks for older employees, as has been the practice in most ISTA affiliated schools.

With the help of a dozen other Indiana districts that have dropped the ISTA, we suspect that the NACEA will survive, or even flourish, now that it has made the split. Local educators who resented the union’s bullying tactics and unrealistic demands can now express their views without ridicule from ISTA bosses, and the NACEA will finally be free to make student learning the district’s top priority.