Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Market Demand

Approximately 80% of school budgets are dedicated to personnel. Indeed, the business of teaching and learning is labor intensive. It takes many people to run a school effectively and efficiently (we'll come back to the idea of efficiency a bit later). In the perpetual debate over school funding a favored argument against [adequate] funding inevitably points this out with reference to so called 'high teacher wages'. It is brought up with comments suggesting that all the money goes to giving teachers big raises, and this doesn't benefit students. Ergo, if provided less money to begin with, then teachers won't get these big raises. What the defender of this argument fails to comprehend or consider is the process of collective bargaining as outlined by Chapter 20 of the Code of Iowa. This is the law and rules that govern how labor contracts are negotiated in Iowa's public sector. Therefore any suggestion that low state aid will equate to a lower [salary] settlement with public school collective bargaining units is both erroneous and naive.

An attempt was made during the recent, and now infamous legislative session that just ended, to alter Chapter 20 and the rules that regulate collective bargaining. For the record, I do believe there are improvements that can and probably should be made to Chapter 20. As the chief negotiator on behalf of the school board there are times that the rules appear to be slanted in favor of labor. I take the responsibility of negotiating the contract on behalf of the district very seriously, and following the directive of the school board work in collaboration with the Association to determine salaries and benefits. My mission in this work is to negotiate a compensation package that is both fair, equitable, and attractive to potential new employees; while at the same time considers the financial status of the school district, enrollment trends, and a whole host of variables that bear on the overall health of the school district. The Association has these same goals, however natural disagreement arises over what these variables both mean and what is fair and equitable. During the contract negotiation, our task is to find common ground. Nevertheless, the manner in which House File 549 was approached was ill conceived and short-sighted. Instead of focusing on the details of what I might suggest changing, lets consider instead the consequences of not negotiating labor agreements.

First we should begin with the basic question: Are teachers overpaid?

Let me offer the perspective of my past experience. Prior to my arrival at Hudson, I worked 15 years in the parochial school system. During this tenure I served as a teacher and as an administrator. Speaking from firsthand experience, wages in parochial schools are significantly less than in public schools--to the tune of several thousand dollars. Perhaps this is precisely the point if you advocate from the position that teachers are overpaid. But when you examine this even further, you uncover another startling reality: when many of those teachers send their own children to school they end up qualifying for free and reduced lunch--which is the metric we use to measure poverty. The fact that the cost per pupil in parochial schools was significantly less than our public school counterparts was most certainly not a point of pride for me in my role as administrator. Instead, it shined a bright light on the fact that we were grossly (and from my viewpoint somewhat embarrassingly) underpaying our employees. Those employees did not engage in negotiating issues of wages or any other type of collective bargaining.

As an administrator in a parochial school, the battle for human resources was constant and I was on the losing end most of the time. It was not an uncommon occurrence to hire an outstanding educator to only have them leave after a few years for a better paying job. Most teachers will tell you they didn't get into education for the money. They did so for a love of the job--the same reason anyone chooses an occupation. Let's be honest though--the reason most of us work is because of the money, otherwise we would do it for free. But free doesn't pay the bills now does it?

Using this context, I pose another question to you: What is a good teacher worth? Assume we are going to hire a teacher at Hudson and propose a starting salary of $36,322 (that is what a brand new teacher at Hudson will make if they start with us this year). Now assume the school district down the road (or in another state) is also looking to hire a teacher, but instead will start them at $40,000. Will the candidate pool be the same? If all things are equal, which teacher would you prefer teaching your children?

If we circle back around to the idea that inadequate state aid will lead to smaller contract settlements, there must be some sort of indication that teachers are really making a ton of money teaching children! That doesn't seem to reflect the facts or our own legislature's recent track record. There have been multiple times the state has intervened to increase wages of teachers. Most recently, school districts who are implementing teacher leadership and compensation systems must use a portion of those funds to raise starting teacher salaries to a minimum of $33,500. Prior to that, the minimum salary for a starting teacher in Iowa was $28,000. Which, by the way was mandated when the legislature began infusing the Teacher Salary Supplement (TSS) into the foundation formula--for the purpose of boosting teacher wages. Those are just two recent examples. Colleagues that have done this longer than I can point to many other times of legislative intervention for the sole purpose of increasing wages of teacher!

In defending the veto of school funding, the Governor suggested that schools would not have to lay off staff or raise property taxes if we used our resources wisely. In that same article, the suggestion is made that we need to be more efficient in schools and tighten our belts because the state has done that by cutting the number of employees by 1,500. Does the Governor assume that we are somehow not using the resources we have wisely? By way of 'belt tightening', we have eliminated positions and have left others unfilled. Going into the 2015-2016 school year, we are poised to share both Family and Consumer Science (FCS) and Business classes with a neighboring school district. Instead of employing our own teachers for these positions, students will be traveling to another school district if they wish to take these classes. We have also been sharing a business manager with a neighboring school district going on three years now.

What's next? Well, the most obvious is increasing class sizes in the elementary and sharing even more positions. Some schools share music and art teachers. I have had several solicitations from neighbors wanting to share these programs over the last couple of years. Any of these actions or those mentioned above will certainly create efficiencies--but very likely at the cost of effectiveness.

We are already on the cusp of a teacher shortage in many areas. Because we are so close to UNI there is a bit of shelter from this shortage. But those Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs that we are sharing that were mentioned above? Part of the reason we are sharing them with other districts is because there are no applicants for our positions. Admittedly it is more difficult to fill part time positions, but if teachers are not doing it for the money it shouldn't matter, right?

So I ask again, would you rather we hire the best teacher we can find, or the one that will work for $28,000? As much as teachers love their work, they are going to be smart about it. If they can do the same job at another school district (or another state) and earn more money, they are probably going to do it. We wouldn't blame them. It is called market demand.

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