The two most significant things that can be done by boards of education are hiring excellent teachers (or teachers with great promise) and negotiating fair and wise collective bargaining agreements. The former directly benefits students. A school's mission, after all, is to educate students. The latter sets the financial stage. Contracts incautiously settled by superintendents and poorly vetted by boards of education before ratification will result in teacher layoffs and damage to the educational system within a district.
This is what has happened in the PCSD. Last October, the Superintendent signed a collective bargaining agreement and the BOE ratified it. What is rather stunning is what the BOE and the Superintendent did not do. They did not have the District's legal firm examine the proposed contract and offer advice. This lack of due diligence is especially confounding because of serious problems that occurred a few years ago in our district. Back then, the BOE and Superintendent Brady learned that one word had been left out of a collective negotiations agreement. Due to the omission of this word, the PCSD lost a critically important legal right that is granted to all schools in NYS. When attorneys at the NYS School Boards Conference were told of our plight, they told us that we would probably never get this provision corrected and that if we did, it would cost us. Well, it was negotiated out and it did cost us. Given that this was a very recent event, why would experienced BOE members and the Superintendent ever consider placing the public's interest in jeopardy by failing to confer with attorneys? (Freshmen Board members should get a pass on this one as it takes years to become a well-informed BOE member and, therefore, they count on the knowledge of experienced Board members and superintendents to guide them.)
For the most part, employees are not overpaid in the PCSD. The problems are with the skyrocketing costs of health insurance (20% of the total budget or approximately $4.5 million dollars for 2012-13) and with pension costs (Teachers' Retirement System [TRS] will be over $1 million and Employee Retirement System[ERS] will be half a million next year). Many people do not know that NYS Comptroller DiNapoli is in control of the TRS and the ERS. He decides how much money must be in the systems. The current economic crisis in NYS has caused the amount of money in the pension funds to plummet (stocks bottomed out, failed investments, etc.). When Mr. DiNapoli sees this, he simply bills each school in order to get the funds up to what he deems to be an acceptable level. The bills to the school districts have risen precipitously.
The central issue with the runaway costs of health insurance and pension contributions is that they are unsustainable. More and more money is going to fund these benefits and the result is that more and more teachers are being laid off. How many more teachers and support staff can be laid off before the quality of education in the district is severely impaired?
The only way to avoid the freight train headed our way is to negotiate contracts that result in long-term savings that can then be used to keep teachers employed. And so, I am back to the point of the importance of negotiating contracts that are in the interest of all parties - employees, students, and the public. The fact that the most recent collective bargaining agreement was not examined by attorneys, shows that the BOE and the Superintendent not only haven't learned from expensive past mistakes but do not see that that freight train can be slowed down or stopped by thorough, intelligent contract negotiations. Doesn't the public deserve to have legal representation on its side of the table?