Teachers Throughout State Being Asked To Give Back
By GRACE E. MERRITT
May 14, 2010
When teachers in Glastonbury politely declined to forgo their 5.2 percent pay raise this spring to help reduce the school budget, they took some heat from taxpayers.
"People were not happy. People felt the teachers should do more," said school board member Jim Zeller.
The mood was much different in Windsor Locks. When teachers there agreed to a new contract that included a wage freeze for the 2010-11 school year, it generated such goodwill that one town leader described the teachers as "heroic."
The reaction was similar in Avon, where teachers recently agreed to cut their scheduled raise for next year in half, from 2.41 percent to 1.2 percent.
Throughout the state, towns are scrounging for ways to limit tax increases as they pull together their budgets, and many have been asking teachers to consider giving up raises and benefits.
But the reaction of teacher unions has been mixed. Some unions have already agreed to accept furlough days or other cutbacks, but are reluctant to swallow further cuts. Others have voted against concessions, asking why they should give back a raise they negotiated in a binding contract.
In many cases, school boards are facing teacher contracts negotiated in better economic times. Those contracts call for raises averaging about 2 percent, with some as high as 8 percent, including the cost-of-living wage increases and the seniority-based "step" raises that teachers get.
Other towns are actually benefiting from the recession. Newly negotiated teacher contracts are including much lower raises. Of the 69 teacher contracts negotiated so far this year, 44 had a salary increase of zero, said Kathy Frega, a spokeswoman for the Connecticut Education Association. And like many other employees, teachers are also paying more for insurance costs, she said.
"You can almost hear the 'chipping away and chipping away' at a sound educational system as towns ask for more and more," Frega said, adding that the fiscal problems facing the state are affecting all employee groups.Union and education experts say there is no clear-cut trend in teacher salaries or givebacks because of variations in the size and wealth of Connecticut towns and when they negotiated their contracts. But teachers say that as the recession drags on, they are facing more demands for concessions.
"I would say that, yeah, I think that teachers are feeling pressured on the need for givebacks or concessions," said Sean Fuss, president of the Glastonbury teachers union. "It's not just here, it's across the nation. It's the effect of the economic climate."
In Glastonbury, teachers were criticized by taxpayers during public budget hearings this spring, especially after another union and nonunion employees agreed to a wage freeze. The town now plans to lay off 20 teachers and increase class sizes.
"It seems like everyone in America either got laid off, didn't get a raise or gave a concession, except for the Glastonbury Education Association," said Glastonbury Councilman Kurt Cavanaugh.
Glastonbury teachers were midway through a four-year contract negotiated in 2008 when the school board asked for the wage freeze this spring. The teachers union said that it wasn't warranted.
"They felt the economy in Glastonbury could support continuing with their contractual obligations," Fuss said.
In New Britain, teachers met this week to discuss how they should respond to a request from school officials to make $3.7 million in concessions. If they don't, 60 to 70 teachers could be laid off, in addition to the 130 jobs in various categories that are already scheduled to be eliminated.
Sharon Palmer, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Connecticut, said that she advises local unions to do what's right for their membership.
In Windsor Locks, teachers agreed to a wage freeze in their newly negotiated contract.
"It built appreciation and acknowledgment that they, too, were making sacrifices with their families and their expenses," said Windsor Locks Superintendent Gregory Little.
Guilford teachers also made a concession last year when they agreed to cut their raises in half in exchange for no layoffs.
Leaders in both towns attributed the cooperation to a good working relationship with teachers cultivated through the years.
"Three years ago we made a decision that we were going to try to approach management-labor relations in a new way," said William Bloss, chairman of the Guilford school board.
Rather than go the traditional route of collective bargaining that sometimes leads to binding arbitration, the school board and the teachers' unions sat down together and worked out a new contract, he said.
"I know it wasn't easy for everyone involved to do the concessions. We understand that," Bloss said. "But I cannot overstate how much respect the teachers earned from the town as a whole when they took the steps they took."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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