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Jeff Ackerman: High school employees should share in the pain

There was a time when government work didn’t pay much, but provided really good benefits and almost lifetime employment.

Today, it’s pretty much a trifecta, as government labor unions have negotiated their way to benefit and retirement packages far exceeding what you find in the private sector and the compensation and job security, by and large, are relatively decent.

You could make a really good argument that during this worst economy that most of us have ever seen, the private sector employees have sacrificed far more than their government employee counterparts. President Obama’s budget calls for the number of federal employees to exceed 2 million for the first time since Clinton declared that the era of big government spending was over.



Good for government workers. Although I often wonder when exactly government labor unions became some of the most influential in the nation, or how we went from protecting iron workers, coal miners and sweat shop employees to bureaucrats, pencil pushers, or office employees, I can’t blame the government employees for wanting everything they can get from their employers. Even if the employers happen to be us, the taxpayers. Even if the employers can no longer afford to provide what many consider to be very generous compensation packages.

I bring this up as our local high school district is facing probably its worst financial crisis ever, with school officials scrambling to make up for a more than $2 million deficit during the next school year.




Later this month the high school district board is expected to begin the process of laying off more than 20 employees, slashing programs and increasing class sizes from 25 to 35 students, because it doesn’t appear all of the district labor unions will agree to take anywhere from three to five days off without pay.

Even though 20 or so of their fellow employees will lose their jobs. Even though the 3,700-plus students will suffer. Even though current contracts provide more paid days off than most in the private sector even dream of having.

And before any of you get the wrong idea … I love teachers. My daughter graduated from Nevada Union High School and my son is a junior there and we could not be happier with the quality of education those teachers provide.

But these are not any times. These, they say, are some of the worst times since the Great Depression. In fact, some have suggested we are soon headed for another Great Depression that will make the last one look like a picnic. As I’ve said one trillion times (I use a trillion as loosely as the government spends it), the government can’t continue to write checks it can’t cash and one day this house of cards will collapse.

Now is the time for compromise. High school district officials say that if all employees agree to take five unpaid days off in the next school year, it will save $500,000, or make up 25 percent of the $2 million budget deficit. And they mean all employees, from the superintendent on down.

If those same employees agree (and I say agree because the unions would have to vote on this) to take just three unpaid days off per year instead of five, the district would save an estimated $312,000.

There would still be program cuts and positions eliminated, but at least not $2 million worth.

Our district teachers make an average of $66,000 per year, according to state figures. That’s not bad pay, really. In fact, if you calculate that over the number of actual work days, it probably equates to maybe as much as $75,000. And you can add another 40 percent in benefits, whch are becoming more and more costly to provide.

And they deserve every penny. For starters, those jobs require a college degree. Some – especially in specialty areas – require a masters degree. And if a teacher is doing his or her job correctly, the job requires hours far beyond the final classroom bell. There are class programs to prepare for, homework assignments to correct and professional development to be continued. A good teacher never stops learning.

Having said all of that, it’s time for our high school teachers to recognize that this economy is a game-changer. There is no more “business as usual.” Not if we want to avoid a fiscal meltdown in unheard-of proportions.

Blame won’t solve this problem, either. Taxpayers in California pay more than their fair share for the dwindling services they receive. For those who still get paychecks, and their numbers are also dwindling, they need look no further than their pay stub to see that more than half of their hard-earned money is missing. The governor? Sure, we can blame the governor, but how about the legislators who have been running this show for the last four years? What have they done, besides ensure that our prison guards and inmates are taken better care of than teachers and students?

Our high school district board is way past the point of rhetoric and debate and is now down to a list of painful decisions. My hope is that the district labor unions recognize the need to share in that pain and, frankly, in this economy a three- or five-day furlough is a small sacrifice to make.

Just ask any of the millons out there who just wish they had a paycheck today.

Jeff Ackerman is the editor/publisher of The Union. His column appears on Tuesdays. Contact him at 477-4299 or jackerman@theunion.com.


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