Jeff Ackerman: Let’s distribute school cuts along tenure boundaries
If I’d still been in high school, I might have been sent to the corner last week.
You don’t tell a teacher what to do. Not if you want to graduate, or stay out of the principal’s office, you don’t.
And so it really came as no surprise that my suggestion last week that our local high school teachers take three to five unpaid days off got me sent to the corner – the one with the stool and pointed cap.
As some of you may know by now (and, if you have high school children, you should know), our local high schools – and all schools for that matter – are in financial trouble. The district is short around $2 million, which is logical since the state is short $21 billion and the federal government around $21 trillion (but who’s counting?).
It’s true what they say about doo-doo running downhill. Washington and Sacramento are kind of like the septic tanks some of us have buried in the yard.
High school district officials say that if every employee – from top to bottom – takes five unpaid days off during the next school year, the district could cut $500,000 from the $2 million deficit. Three unpaid days off would save $300,000. Such a move would require the various employee unions to agree by a vote. I believe negotiations are moving ahead this week (after a four-day weekend) and I have encouraged the teachers to give in, or see many more of their colleagues join the unemployment line.
The district must proceed as if the teachers will refuse the deal. Law requires that employees be notified several days in advance of a layoff, which means several high school employees will soon get pink slips in the mail.
I suspect most of those who contacted me last week will not be getting pink slips. Their jobs are safe because they have more than enough “tenure,” that magic word that generally means your job is safe for the rest of your career. Quality has very little to do with the union bumping policies. You could be the best teacher in the school, but if you don’t have tenure, you have a target on your back.
An estimated 40 percent of our high school district teachers are near the top of the pay scale, which means they have been teaching at least 20 years. They really have no incentive to agree to any unpaid days off because they will probably have jobs no matter what the district does. It’s the younger teachers – the ones generally still filled with excitement and enthusiasm – who will be the first to go. I’m not saying older teachers can’t get excited or enthused. I’m 58 and can still get excited, so long as that happens before 9 p.m.
It’s just that younger teachers can probably better connect with students than teachers who think The Who should still be on tour.
The president of the local teachers union sent me an e-mail last Tuesday morning to cancel his subscription.
He and his wife (who also teaches) said if they are forced to take unpaid days off, they will have to cut expenses, so he thought he’d start with his newspaper subscription. Never mind that we’ve given their students plenty of publicity over the years. Never mind that their combined income probably exceeds at least $160,000 per year (he is at the very top of the pay scale).
Not long after his e-mail arrived, I got a phone call from a teacher who is near the bottom of the pay scale.
He doesn’t agree with the union president, which means he needs to be careful what he says because union bosses don’t like renegades. This young teacher said he’d take a few unpaid days off in a heartbeat if it meant saving more jobs (including his). He also suggested that this union is led by teachers at the top who really don’t care what happens to the teachers at or near the bottom of the totem pole.
All I said was that the union – and government unions all over the country – need to recognize that the good days of free government spending are over (and I swear they will get that in D.C. one day soon). The wells are dry and taxpayers (the ones who are left with jobs) really don’t believe the problems are a result of them not paying enough taxes.
The problem is that government generally starts at the bottom and works its way up when looking to cut. If you don’t believe that, I just read where the officials from the state Department of Education (why does that exist today?) spent more than $1 million on hotels for conferences just last year, while the recession was already in full gear. Do you think there might be a disconnect somewhere?
And the state-mandated school programs have taken us so far from the 3 R’s that our students know how to roll on a condom, but can’t spell it. Most teachers will tell you that it would be great if some parents would actually take an interest in their own children. The notion of “merit” pay for teachers assumes that all parents are working with their children after school and encouraging them to do well.
In the end, we’ve come down to some painful decisions if we want to keep our local high school from collapsing altogether. All the $2 million in cuts will be painful, but I’m hoping the labor unions agree to at least demonstrate a willingness to distribute the pain across the tenured boundaries.
Jeff Ackerman is the editor/publisher of The Union. His column appears on Tuesdays. Contact him at 477-4299 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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