Tuesday, June 26, 2012

PCS: Mandate Relief & The Case for Hiring Legal Experts

The public hears, time and time again, the complaint that unfunded NYS mandates are a huge and unfair burden on public schools. At a pubic budget forum several months ago, the PCSD superintendent specifically mentioned the need to repeal the Triborough Amendment (to the Taylor Law).  NYSCOSS (the NYS Council of School Superintendents) and NYSSBA (the NYS School Boards Association) are among the most vocal opponents of the Triborough Amendment.

This 1982 mandate requires that all provisions in an expired labor agreement, including step increases (raises), must remain in effect until a new contract is agreed upon. Thus, expired contracts carry little incentive to bring labor to the table eager and motivated to settle a new contract. A timely settlement of contracts is beneficial to both management and labor.

"In the 1970's, the state Court of Appeals ruled that Triborough Doctrine did not require payment of automatic 'step' increases after expiration of a contract which is why public employee unions fought for the stronger law (the Triborough Amendment). They got it, in (not coincidentally) a statewide election year, over the strong objections of the state's local government and school board organizations, and against the advice of Hugh Carey's own Budget Divisions analysts."

The reason it is so important for Board members to study and learn about all facets of their jobs as local officials is that they would question whether the PCSD may have done something that contract attorneys have told Board members across NYS never to do. Never, they say, put provisions of the Triborough Amendment into local union contracts.

Why should this be avoided? Well, if the Triborough Amendment were ever to be repealed, school districts that included Triborough language in their contracts would still have to adhere to the provisions of that law, that mandate.

In Article II of the PCSD contract between the Teachers' Union and the Superintendent of Schools, the following is written: "It is understood that the terms and conditions of employment provided in this Agreement will remain in effect until altered by mutual agreement in writing between the two parties."

In my opinion, it appears that at the PCSD, the reprieve from the Triborough Amendment would only occur if:

  1.  the law was repealed by legislators in Albany (highly unlikely) and then
  2.  the superintendent could get the above-cited provision negotiated out of the local contract (even more unlikely).

Once again, the need for legal expertise is called for when agreeing to contracts that have long-term and far-reaching consequences.

Friday, June 22, 2012

PCS: A Financial Snapshot

It can be difficult to understand how NYS aid to schools impacts the costs. The following snapshot of the 2010-11 school year at the PCSD should help clarify the major areas of spending and the aid received.

For  2010-11 
$ 6,700,000....................Benefits
$ 1,500,000....................Special Ed. (The cost before NYS aid was $3.9 million.)
$       308,000.........................Debt Service (Cost before building aid was $3.4 million.)*
$       100,000.........................Transportation (Cost before aid was $1 million.)
$       311,000..........................Athletics
$        52,000...........................Extracurricular Activities

~ On the Special Education costs of $3.9 million, NYS reimbursed the PCSD $2.4 million.
~ On the Debt Service of $3.4 million, NYS reimbursed the district $3 million. (Aid was 91%) * The building aid received on debt service varies.
~ On the Transportation Costs of $1million, NYS paid $900,000. (Aid was 90%)

  • Education is a people business. Thus, the major cost drivers are salaries (for employees) and benefits (for employees and retirees). 
  • There have been significant decreases in NYS aid to schools (for the last several years).
  •  There have been significant increases in the costs of contractual obligations (negotiated locally between the superintendent and the unions).
  • The primary place to realize savings, unfortunately, lies in cutting jobs.
  •  The causes of the financial problems at the PCSD are the result of both local contract agreements and State cuts in funding. 

What comprises the $6.7 million in benefit costs?
  1.  $4.3 million.......Health Insurance
  2.  $ 849,000..........TRS (Teachers' Retirement System)
  3.  $ 799,000..........Social Security
  4.  $ 333,000..........ERS (Employee Retirement System for CSEA)
  5.  $ 165,000..........Administration of Health Ins. Plan
  6.  $ 100,000..........Unemployment Insurance
  7.  $  86,000...........Workers' Compensation Ins.
  8.  $  22,000...........Workers' Compensation Administration
  9.  $   8,000............Flex Plan and 403b fees 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

PCS: Salaries/Benefits for Teachers & CSEA - Part 7

Re. Teachers 

Teachers in the PCSD receive a range of salaries. Entry-level teachers receive about $35,600 - which is much lower than it is for teachers on or near the top steps -$72,400. (Extra earnings for coaching/advising can increase a base salary by approximately $12,000).  Base salary is determined by years of experience (Steps) and educational level (Lanes). For instance, when a teacher receives a Masters Degree, s(he) changes lanes (a raise) and for every year of seniority, s(he) moves up a step (which means a raise).

How are teachers salaries determined?
Teachers’ raises are divided into two categories:
Step Increases – which are given each year (even if a contract is not settled)
Additional Negotiated Raises – the raises negotiated via contacts settled between the union and the superintendent of schools and ratified by the BOE. (The union decides how this money is divided up. It is incorrect to think that each teacher gets an equal amount.)

Are teachers underpaid?
Many would agree that as a society, we do not pay effective teachers enough. Recently, a talented teacher told me that her daughter got her first job out of college - and the salary is more than her mother receives after decades in the profession.

In particular, the relatively low salaries for new teachers can make it difficult for the teaching profession to attract the most competitive students.  Most students and young professionals have to go into debt for many years to pay for their Bachelor’s Degrees and for their Master’s Degrees.  Student loan debt in the US now exceeds credit card debt – a disconcerting fact indeed. If our state (and country for that matter) revised its spending priorities, many believe spending on education should be given a higher priority. Having said that, increased rigor and relevance of teacher preparation programs must occur as well.
~ ~ ~ 

Most CSEA employees are, inarguably, modestly paid. It is the high quality health insurance benefit available to them (and to all employees) that enables the district to attract competitive employees.  It is also the skyrocketing costs of benefits that prevent the district from giving these employees a fairer rate of pay. As long as huge sums are being spent on health insurance premiums and pension costs, little is left for the base salary. A few years ago, a PCSD Health Insurance Committee was formed to examine good alternatives to the current health insurance program. Significant savings could have been realized if the unions (CSEA, Teachers, Administrators) agreed to move to a very good alternate plan. At the time, the health insurance offered at SUNY Potsdam was discussed as an alternative. It would have saved the PCSD impressive sums that could then have been used to save jobs, offer better raises, and place the district in much better financial standing.  The move was refused because the plan was not identical to the current HI plan.  Again, the issue of benefits is central to the PCSD fiscal situation and to the CSEA's ability to negotiate better contracts for union members.
~ ~ ~
Pertinent Questions

Will NYS funding of public schools increase any time soon?
By most accounts, not likely. New York State, like so many other states, is undergoing a financial meltdown that has resulted in large cuts to education funding.  The State's financial problems have trickled down to the local government level - counties, towns, schools.

Schools, as local taxing entities, have been forced to spend less (usually via job cuts) and increase taxes (though the tax cap has placed major limitations on taxation by schools).  It has been stated by many that the tax cap is an effort to ease the tax burden on the public while simultaneously forcing school consolidations and other cost savings efforts. NYS is in no position to do anything but cut aid to schools. State officials may try to level aid to schools for next year (promises made in an election year - as usual) but the fiscal problems in NYS (in the country and around the globe) are predicted to last for some time.

Are the financial problems facing public schools the sole result of cuts in state aid to schools?
No. Locally negotiated labor contracts (which guarantee costly benefits) are another major problem facing schools. The health insurance benefit was initially agreed to when health insurance was reasonably priced. Management did not foresee the healthcare crisis and the soaring growth in health insurance premiums that came with it. The millions being spent on premiums, along with  pension costs, are negatively impacting the school through lost jobs and cuts to programs.

The cost of health insurance for this year was $4.2 million - of which $1.9 million was for retirees. Health insurances for retirees is, for the most part, free.  Because of the anticipated scope of future retiree insurance costs, the government issued a compliance statement called GASB 45.

GASB 45 (Governmental Accounting Standards Board) "is an accounting and financial reporting provision requiring government employers to measure and report the liabilities associated with OPEB (Other than Pension post-Employment Benefits). Schools are required to comply with GASB 45 which was initiated in 2004 "because of the growing concern over the potential magnitude of government employer obligations for post-employment benefits." [Emphasis added.]

The largest OPEB contractually given to retirees by the Potsdam School District is health insurance. The current pay-as-you-go method does not provide useful information for schools to assess the demands on  the district's future cash flow. To read more about GASB 45 go to:


The other ever escalating cost is the required contribution to pension plans (approximately $1.4 million). When the value of the retirement funds drop, as they have in recent years due to investment losses caused by the Wall Street financial crisis (a self-inflicted crisis as we all now know),  the NYS Comptroller bills the schools in order to bring the funds up to a level he deems acceptable. This cost is passed on to local taxpayers. Some have reported that the Teachers' Pension Fund remains dangerously underfunded and have predicted that it could be insolvent in as little as ten years. They assert Mr. DiNapoli is overestimating the return on investments in the funds. If he agreed to a more realistic return (a lower one), then school districts would receive even higher bills to be paid to the pension funds. Some assert that Mr. DiNapoli is overestimating the returns on the pension funds because of pressure from unions who know negotiated raises might disappear if school districts receive even higher bills for the pension contributions. The available pool of revenues to run the school district is limited and health insurance and pensions are taking a disproportionate amount of the money.
 See "Public Pensions Faulted for Bets on Rosy Returns," by Mary Walsh and Danny Hakim in The NY Times.


Can the benefits, which are contractually owed to employees and retirees, bankrupt the school?

Yes. At the PCSD there is a benefit problem that is hindering better incomes and resulting in lost jobs. Actuaries, hired in compliance with GASB 45, have told PCSD officials that if they started funding the contractually-promised future health insurance premiums, the district would go bankrupt. (This is true for most public schools.) At this point, the government has not required schools to start funding these commitments in advance. The actuaries reported to the District their best estimate as to the cost of paying health insurance to its retirees (and future retirees) over a twenty-year period. (Twenty years being the actuarial estimation of the lifespan of an average retiree.)
This actuarial report is available via a FOIL request to the school district.

What can interested members of the public do?

~ Continue to lobby NYS for equitable funding for high and average needs schools.
~ Ask the BOE to discuss the potential magnitude of district obligations for post-employment benefits and take action to protect all members of the school community by not entering into unaffordable and unrealistic future financial obligations.
~ Encourage the BOE to hire an attorney to handle future contract negotiations. Expertise is needed.
~ Support Board members who do their homework,  ask hard questions, make tough decisions, demand transparency and accountability.
                                                                 ~ ~ ~

Saturday, June 16, 2012

PCS: What are Administrators Worth? - Part 6

Just what are the central issues to be addressed in regards to analyzing the compensation and benefits for PCS employees and retirees (or, for that matter, for most NYS public schools)?  For the PCSD, let’s first examine the salaries.

Regarding Salaries for Administrators

Are administrators overpaid? Well, that depends. A good administrator should be an ethical and intelligent educational leader who is committed to the continual improvement of education for students. An administrator who fits this description is by no means overpaid. It has been said that there needs to be a renaissance in American public education. Administrators should be asked if they agree and how they propose to help lead the school district into such a renaissance. Additionally, they should be asked what they propose to do about the lack of rigor in teacher preparation programs and what they plan to do to attract more academically competitive undergrads to the teaching profession.

The PCSD is lean on administration. The superintendent position comes with no professional academic assistant. This is also true of the principal positions. In addition, these individuals incur significant expense for multiple degrees and certifications. Are the PCSD professional administrative salaries out of line with what is fair and reasonable for this area? No, they are not.

The position of superintendent of schools is especially important because the person in this position has a central role in selecting good teachers. Anyone who has ever served on a BOE has too often seen political hires trump quality hires. When a Board is complicit in this, well…students can be doomed to mediocrity for up to thirty years.

The superintendent of schools also has the sole authority to negotiate collective bargaining agreements while it is the Board's job to vote on ratification (release of the money). Unions are getting the contracts that the superintendent favors. I have never seen a BOE fail to ratify a proposed contract that was endorsed by the superintendent. Fair and insightful negotiating can leave the school district in solid financial standing- a Win/Win for management and labor.  Board members in NYS are always advised to have the district hire an attorney, with specialized knowledge in labor law and negotiations, to handle negotiations and to work within the parameters given to him/her by the superintendent and BOE. The argument, of course, is that superintendents usually come from the teaching ranks and have little to no expertise in labor law, negotiating, or contract writing. A sloppily written contract, as the PCSD discovered a few years ago, can lead to lost grievances, lost legal rights, and lost negotiating power. Over the 13 years I served on the BOE, I have never seen a superintendent willing to hire an attorney to handle negotiations nor a Board where the majority saw the value in it. The argument has always been that it would be too expensive. This is untrue. What is too expensive is dealing with the consequences of poorly written contracts that contain costly and unsustainable provisions. Everyone suffers when the bank is broken so why pretend we aren’t heading in that direction? Why pass on to future employees, students, and taxpayers the burden of unsustainable benefits that have been negotiated by past supers and ratified by union-compromised Boards? It’s easier, of course, to pass on the burden to the next generation but it is inexcusable.

What, one might ask, are administrators worth? Good ones are invaluable.

Future postings will cover:
Ø  Teacher and CSEA compensation
Ø  Benefits for Employees and Retirees

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Educational Priorities and the Need to Survey Students

I was reading an article recently about the best high schools in the country and noticed that City Honors School at Fosdick-Masten Park in Buffalo, NY was listed among the top of this elite group. On their website http://www.cityhonors.org/page/mission-philosophy/ I took particular note of their philosophy of education.
They cite as their four Core Values:
~ Honesty
~ Kindness
~ Respect
~ Responsibility

In addition, their stated Beliefs are:
  • Students need to learn to work cooperatively with others and live compassionately in a pluralistic society.
  • Students require a differentiated curriculum that….
    Is aligned 5 – 12
    Models best practice
    Is commensurate with their academic and intellectual needs
    Includes multiple modalities of student assessment
  • We believe support from home and school will ensure student success.
  • Students should be encouraged to be producers of new knowledge, not just consumers of information.
  • Parental support and community partnership are integral to our school organization.
  • Continuous assessment of student progress is essential to ensure that we are meeting needs.
  • We believe the training and support of school personnel is critical to the success of the school.
  • Community service is a vital part of a student’s learning.
  • We believe that our community of learning must cultivate its cultural diversity.
  • We believe that our students need direction, a caring environment, feedback, “expert” teachers, and high achievement. To that end, we believe that our students should be able to strongly agree with the following statements:
    1. I know what is expected of me in my classes.
    2. In my classes, I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work correctly.
    3. In one or more of my classes I have the opportunity to do what I do best on a regular basis.
    4. There is at least one teacher, counselor, or other adult at school who regularly encourages my achievement (development).
    5. About every week (regularly) I receive recognition or praise for doing good work from at least one of my teachers.
    6. My teachers regularly inform me how I am doing in my classes.
    7. I believe my teachers are experts in what they teach.
    8. As a result of going to this school, I believe I am learning and growing in important ways.
    9. This school is meeting my expectations.
        During my many years as a BOE member, I encouraged superintendents, many times over, to get student input so that Board members could see what the consumers of education - the students - think about their experiences at the PCSD. Several years ago, the HS principal presented the BOE with a partial survey of students. When she was asked why most of the students were not surveyed, she said that many of the teachers didn't take their classes to the library to fill out the surveys because they were busy. Well, the high school has a 20-minute homeroom period where such surveys should be conducted so there should be no excuses.  I believe some administrators were themselves reluctant to gather student input in a systematic and thorough manner. Why? Loss of control of the message. Any good news from the surveys would (and should) be touted but any bad news would (and should) inevitably lead to hard questions from the Board and to necessary action to be taken by administrators to explore and address any areas of weakness. 
        The nine statements listed above, along with the three noted below, could be used in a survey of students. Students could be asked  to rate those ideas on a scale from "Strongly Disagree" to "Strongly Agree." The brevity of the task would probably ensure that students would complete it and not tune out. It would also make it easy for administrators to summarize the results.(Actually, the student council might want to handle the surveying of students. It would be a good authentic project for them.) Additionally, since some of the nine statements refer to teachers - not a specific teacher - administrators could stop fretting the student surveys would violate teacher evaluation requirements. Finally, sharing the results with the BOE (and, thus, the public), employees, and students would enable all to see school through the lens of the students. Student input could then be used to improve the quality of the educational experience for students. 
        A NY Times article on the topic of surveying students is entitled, "What Works in the Classroom? Ask the Students"
    This article presents some very simple observations: Classrooms where a majority of students said they agreed with the statement, "Our class stays busy and doesn't waste time," tended to be led by teachers with high value-added scores. The same was true for teachers whose students agreed with the statements, "In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes," and "My teacher has several good ways to explain each topic that we cover in class." As a nation, we've wasted what students know about their own classroom experiences instead of using that knowledge to inform school reform efforts."  (These three statements could be added to the nine noted above to create a short, 12-statement survey for PCS students.)
        There are easy ways to gather important important information from students in grades 5-12. Will we ever have a Board where the majority directs the superintendent to gather such information on an annual basis? Will we ever have a superintendent who is eager to use student knowledge to inform school reform efforts?

    Thursday, June 7, 2012

    Quinniac University Poll and Education

    Approximately 47% of New Yorkers approve of the way that Governor Cuomo is handling education, according to the most recent poll results from the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.  In addition, New Yorkers are in favor of several changes to the way teachers are treated.  First, almost two-thirds think it is a good idea for teachers who are doing an outstanding job to receive merit pay.  Second, over sixty percent of New Yorkers think that it is a good idea to make it easier to fire teachers.  Third, over eighty percent believe that teacher layoffs should be based on performance instead of seniority. Fourth, fifty-six percent of New Yorkers responding to this poll approve of making public the evaluations of public school teachers.

    Is this the time for serious change in the balance of power between education administrators and the teacher's unions in New York State?  Now may be the perfect opportunity to update the State's Public Employees Fair Employment Act (Taylor Law) and push forward with school districts' teacher evaluation plans.  It is very clear that while the public is in favor of change in education, the entrenched bureaucracies of public education will resist to the bitter end.

    To read about these results and view the rest of the poll, go to: Quinnipiac University Poll Results

    Saturday, June 2, 2012

    Unions: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

    The following is a link to "Romney vs. teachers unions: The inconvenient truth" recently published in The Washington Post. 


    The author, Matt Miller, writes:
    I’ve slammed teachers unions plenty. They make it too hard to fire bad teachers who blight the lives of countless kids. They defend a “lockstep” salary schedule even though districts need to be able to pay much more for recruits with math and science degrees who have lucrative options outside the classroom. They dominate school board races in big cities, putting themselves on both sides of the bargaining table. They embed rules in contracts and state law that make it extraordinarily difficult to change staffing, compensation, employment, curriculum or the length and schedule of the school day. Oh, and they send more delegates to the Democratic National Convention than most large states.

    What I know from first-hand experience as a former teacher (over ten years) and former PCS Board of Education Member (over ten years) is that I generally agree with Mr. Miller.
    1. Do teachers' unions make it hard to fire bad teachers? Yes, no question about it. However, the unions are not alone. Many principals, superintendents, and Boards are complicit in retaining ineffective teachers by failing to identify and remove them. Even the most egregiously poor teachers will, when convenient, be defended by administrators and overlooked by Boards. (If this seems hard to believe, get on a board and watch it happen yourself.) 
    2. Do these unions defend lockstep salary schedules? Yes. But there is more to it. While the Step Schedule (one step for every year employed at the school) guarantees teachers a specific dollar amount raise every year, the additional money (above the step money) that is given to teachers when they successfully negotiate a contract is divided up among the steps by a small group of union members. In the 1990's, during my first stint on the BOE, all teachers on a certain step (my recollection is that it was Step 12 or thereabouts) were given over a ten thousand dollar raise in one year while others received, by comparison, very minimal raises. This created quite a brouhaha and is a lesson to union members to be involved with such decisions. 
    3. Do schools need to have competitive salaries in order to recruit highly-qualified teachers?  Of course but I wouldn't limit this to math and science teachers. 
    4. Do teachers' unions dominate school board races in big cities thus putting themselves on both sides of the bargaining table? Yes. However, Mr. Miller is wrong if he believes this is limited to big cities. Local papers have carried news of this at Massena Central. At Potsdam Central, Board member "interests" are as follows: one Board member has a spouse employed at PCS both as a teacher and a member of the negotiations' team for the last teachers' contract; another Board member has a daughter employed as a teacher; a third has a brother-in-law employed as teacher; a fourth has a sister-in-law employed by the district; a fifth has a spouse who is a CSEA employee. That would make the majority and controlling vote on the BOE being made by family members of employees.  All three winners in the recent PCS Board election are either NYSUT members or UUP members (a union affiliated with NYSUT). Tony Vaccaro, long-time Teachers' Union President, sent out an e-mail to teachers prior to the election encouraging them to find candidates for the Board of Education. As a consequence, a recent teacher retiree received dozens of phone messages encouraging him to run for the Board (something that would have entitled him to negotiate teacher contracts which have a direct affect on his own retirement benefits.)  In Potsdam, NYSUT has been highly successful in its goal to own both sides of the bargaining table. Thus, the public cannot be surprised that the last teachers' contract was negotiated by the Superintendent and ratified by the BOE without ever having the attorney for the school district review the contract. Of course, this attorney would have given advice that would have been in the interest of the public and that might have provided the union-compromised BOE with inconvenient truths. NYSUT is widely recognized as a powerful union with skilled attorneys. Teachers deserve to have this powerful organization represent them on one side of the table. A widespread complaint is that the system has been gamed by NYSUT in their successful efforts to place NYSUT members, their family members and friends on local school boards - thus giving the union control of both sides of the bargaining table. Meanwhile, NYSUT hopes that the sleeping giant - the voting public - never wakes up.
    Mr. Miller also writes:
    How do we talk about upgrading the caliber of people who choose teaching as a career without disrespecting and demoralizing the current corps — a corps that includes hundreds of thousands of excellent teachers working their hearts out for our kids under trying conditions? Yet it’s these teachers who have told me with passion how mediocre too many of their colleagues are.

    We’ll need to hire millions of new teachers in the next decade or two as the boomers retire. This is an enormous opportunity. If we adopted the strategic approach to talent that top-performing countries follow, does anyone doubt we’d make serious progress — and that our unions would end up with a different focus? (While I have much to learn about how teachers unions function in these high-performing countries, my early reporting suggests they are real partners in ensuring teacher quality and meaningful professional development. That’s where they spend their time and energy — not fighting to keep bad eggs on the payroll.)

    All this helps explain why the answer to our education emergency is to think much bigger about teaching. What about starting salaries of $65,000 rising to $150,000 for teachers (and more for principals)? And federally funded “West Points” of teaching and principal training to model for the nation how it can be done? And new federal cash for poor districts now doomed by our 19th-century system of local school finance, so they can compete in regional labor markets for the talent that today gravitates to higher-paying suburbs? 
                                                                           ~ ~ ~
    It goes without saying that most teacher preparation programs need to become rigorous, meaningful, and attractive to competitive students.  Diane Ravitch has said that our country needs to have a renaissance in education and that means change...something that is often anathema to far too many schools. This week a Potsdam official told me that needed educational improvement at PCS is not going to happen as long as  unions have undue influence on the school's governance body - the school board.

    Let's hope someone wakes up that sleeping giant soon.