NESHAMINY, Pa. – Some well-meaning people still cling to the notion that teachers union collective bargaining is healthy for public schools.
We invite them to visit Neshaminy, Pennsylvania, or at least do some research on the three-year labor standoff that has been tearing the school district and community to shreds.
Neshaminy teachers are among the most highly compensated in the state, with above-average salaries, generous insurance and retirement benefits. Their last contract expired in 2008, and they haven’t been able to negotiate a new one because the school board, battling financial problems brought on by the recession, can no longer afford extravagant compensation.
The teachers union has responded with ugly tactics, including a threat to strike and a decision to “work to contract,” which is a nice term for a general work slowdown. The community has reacted with anger toward the union’s self-serving demands, and the Philadelphia suburb has been poisoned with an environment of anger and mistrust.
“What started as a skirmish a few years ago has become an all-out war, precipitated by union misinformation, deception and malice,” one citizen wrote to a local newspaper. “In this two-sided war between an intransigent teachers union and suffering taxpayers/parents/students, there can be no sitting on the fence; we’ve advanced too far for that.
“Everyone should take a stand for what they believe in.”
Spoiled union avoiding concessions
Let’s start with a few facts:
The Neshaminy school district, like most across the nation, is facing dire financial problems. It has closed two school buildings in recent years, laid off more than 60 employees and cut several student programs, in an effort to keep up with runaway labor costs.
The Neshaminy Federation of Teachers has been working under the terms of an expired collective bargaining agreement for the past three school years. Those terms are very generous indeed.
The 675 teachers on staff are the second highest paid in the state, with an average salary of $81,816. Teachers have never had to contribute a dime toward health insurance premiums for themselves and their families. Teachers receive longevity bonuses, reimbursement for unused sick days, as well as a $27,500 cash bonus and full health coverage upon retirement.
The school board has made it very clear that the district can no longer afford lucrative labor expenses during the current economic crisis. Still, it has offered contract terms that would be considered generous in many school districts across the nation.
The board is offering a one percent general pay increase over the next three years, which stands in contrast to many school districts, where teachers wages have necessarily been frozen. The proposed pay increase, combined with automatic, annual step increases, would amount to a 3.1 percent raise for teachers every year.
But the board also wants to save money by having teachers pay between 10 and 20 percent of their health insurance costs, which is about average compared to other school districts and private sector companies. It also wants to eliminate the $27,500 retirement bonus, which puts a tight squeeze on the district budget every year.
But the teachers union rejected the district’s most recent offer, calling it an “insult.” The union wants a much larger general raise (2.75 percent this year plus step increases; 3 percent plus steps in 2012-13; and 3.25 percent plus steps in 2013-14), with an eight percent cap on the amount employees have to contribute toward health coverage.
The union also wants to preserve the pricey retirement bonus and benefits, and insists that teachers receive retroactive pay for the step increases they would have received over the past three years. The board is rejecting that demand, noting it would cost the district close to $9 million.
“The reality is, we’re not broke, but we’re not in any position to pay what their demands are,” school board President Ritchie Webb told Education Action Group. “How can I sign a contract that costs $3-4 million extra every year without the ability to pay for it?
“I’m running out of schools to close. I will have to cut programs. The very reason we’re here is to provide programs for kids, not teachers or bus drivers or custodians. Until we come up with a contract we can afford, we’ll continue under the status quo.”
Overgenerous contract to blame
The average person might wonder how the teachers of Neshaminy got such a lucrative contract in the first place. Current school board members are wondering the same thing.
In 2002, the former school board negotiated a six-year deal with the teachers union, which included free health care for teachers and their families, free health insurance for retirees and the $27,500 bonus for retirees with at least 10 years of service.
The worst part, as current board members recently discovered, is that the retirement bonus was written into the pact as a “sidebar” deal between the former board president and union president, and was never ratified by the full board, according to Webb.
The old contract, which Webb calls a “huge mistake,” increased the district’s annual budget from about $125 million per year to about $164 million.
The generous contract didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, because the economy was healthy and tax revenue was pouring into the district. Then the recession hit, tax revenue plummeted and the state passed a property tax limitation law, severely restricting the amount school boards can levy against property owners.
Somehow union leaders have failed to notice that money stopped growing on trees in Neshaminy – or they just don’t care.
“Neshaminy was in a growth situation in 2002,” Webb said. “We had a lot of industry and homes. Every year a (property tax) mill was worth more. But because of the economy it’s taken a big hit. Everything’s changed. The construction has stopped. We no longer have the ability to finance the things we had in the past.”
Pennsylvania State Sen. Tommy Tomlinson, who has been endorsed by teachers unions in each of his last two campaigns, put the situation in perspective.
“Obviously the school board is doing its job in representing the taxpayers and trying to control expenses,” Tomlinson told a local newspaper. “And the union leaders are doing what they think is right for their members, but I’m not sure they are taking into full account the tough economic situation that faces all of us.”
Ugly union temper tantrums
While the union’s contract demands are clearly absurd, its behavior in the community can only be described as outrageous.
Members continually picket outside school board meetings and have voted to authorize a strike.
They wear matching protest shirts to work, distribute union leaflets door-to-door, and have taken out newspaper ads accusing the school board of lying about its financial circumstances.
Some union members have recently been picketing outside of school buildings during the day, in clear sight of students.
In August union members voted to “work to contract,” which means they will only perform the duties strictly spelled out in their expired contract. There will be no after-school help for students. No letters of recommendations for college-bound students. No classroom decorations.
These folks make an average salary of more than $80,000, and they won’t stick around for a few minutes after school to help struggling students?
The union was recently reprimanded for handing out leaflets regarding the labor disagreement at an orientation meeting for kindergartners and their parents.
The union was also called out for hijacking a district list of parent telephone numbers, and asking members to call parents in the evening to elicit their support. The union distributed a list of step-by-step instructions for teachers who call parents, including directions for dealing with parents “who start bitching at you.”
“Sadly, by participating in the union’s four-year misguided crusade, (teachers) have unnecessarily squandered away the real currency of all educators – reputation, personal respect and professional dignity,” wrote local resident Larry Pastor in a letter to the editor of a local paper.
Negative public reaction
The work-to-contract situation has clearly affected students. Hundreds of youngsters at Middle Point Middle School recently walked out of class to protest the situation, with groups of kids running into a nearby wooded area to hide.
Some of the children reportedly “mooned” a local television video journalist who was on the scene. Police had to be called to herd the kids back into class, because teachers refused to help with the effort.
The situation has incensed a lot of parents and citizens-at-large, according to various media reports.
Citizens attending recent school board meetings have called on the teachers to “step into the real world.” Some residents have held signs at board meetings saying “We love our school board,” and have been wearing blue shirts with the initials “NFW,” which stands for “no fiscal way” the district can meet union demands.
A school secretary reportedly got into a shoving match with a union leader, which led to a police investigation. Yards signs expressing support for the union have reportedly been destroyed or stolen.
Amazingly, union leaders are surprised and hurt by the public’s reaction. They recently bemoaned their perception that there is an “open season on teachers” in the community. They called on the school board to defend teachers against “false or inflammatory” comments posted online or spoken at public meetings.
“Sitting silently on the sidelines while the public makes outlandish claims and accusations about our members will one day lead to greater problems,” union Vice President Anne Schmidt recently told the media.
In other words, the unions wants the school board to tell justifiably upset residents to keep their thoughts to themselves. Apparently nobody in the union leadership has considered the possibility that the public resentment is the product of their own demands and actions.
School board member William O’Connor told reporters that the union has “deflected attention away from their unaffordable contract demands and placed blame on everyone and everything else.”
School board member Scott Congdon suggested that union members conduct themselves more professionally to “get back the respect that they deserve.”