Word came down today that negotiations on a new teacher’s contract between the Grafton Teachers Association and the Grafton School Committee have broken down. The previous Grafton teachers’ contract expired last year, and the teachers have been working off of the terms of the previous contract ever since.
Apparently frustrated with the lack of progress in negotiations, Grafton teachers began this morning holding signs in front of Grafton High School indicating that they are “fighting for schools students deserve”.
Equally frustrated, School Committee member, Teri Turgeon took to her facebook page this morning to let the public know that the GTA turned down what, in her view (and mine) was a fair offer for a three year contract that included cost of living adjustments (COLA) of 2.4%, 2% and 2% each year, respectively. This is independent of step and lane increases that teachers already receive.
I’m about to make the argument, below, that the GTA is behaving foolishly by turning down this offer, and they are, right now, doing anything but fighting for better schools for your kids. And it’s not because I hate teachers or unions or I don’t have kids in the system. I have two, about to be three, kids in the system. My family’s future is tied up in this. I highly respect teachers and the job they do, and I put my own butt on the line three years ago co-chairing YesGrafton, the override advocacy group, to get our schools more money. So, when I tell you that the GTA’s position in this is absurd, please understand it comes from a place of absolute dismay inside of me given Grafton’s financial position.
But before we get into all that, it might be helpful for you parents out there who work private sector jobs to understand how teacher contracts work, and what things like COLA are, so here are the basics:
- The School budget increases at 5.25% per year.
Since the 2014 Override, the Grafton school budget has increased by 5.25% per year, annually. This is a completely arbitrary figure agreed upon by the School Committee and the Board of Selectmen designed to maximize both the number of years that the override money lasts, and the ability of the school system to maintain stability.
“Stable” at all relevant times in 2014 was defined as “the district is ‘whole’, class sizes are within recommended ranges, supports are in place for special education and counseling services. Maintenance and custodial needs are being met to a satisfactory level. Annually approximately 4.0% of increase in going to salary obligations and special education tuition/transportation increases.”
- The Municipal Budget increases at a much lower rate of about 2.8%.
Your local budget isn’t rocket science. It’s made up almost entirely of local property taxes. The amount the town collects from residents (the levy) can only be increased by a total of 2.5% per year (Proposition 2.5), plus whatever new growth the town has. The remainder of our income comes in the form of fees and whatever state aid that we get. State aid is projected at 4% of the total budget, and increases at about 2-3% per year.
Overall, our ability to pay for the services we say we want only increases at about 2.8% per year, despite the fact that the things we want cost way more.
- Town salaries.
Approximately 80% of the Town’s annual budget is personnel, inclusive of salaries and benefits.
The Grafton Public Schools is our town’s largest budget expenditure and consumes approximately 66% of our budget.
Of the 5.25% that the 66% increases every year, 4% of that increase is dedicated to teacher salary alone, right now.
To put it another way, two thirds of our budget increases at a rate (5.25%) that is over double what we take in every year in additional funds, and a large chunk of that is made up of teacher salaries. This is not sustainable.
- Steps and Lanes.
The Grafton teachers’ salary structure is subject to collective bargaining. Collective bargaining contracts between the Grafton School Committee and the GTA, typically cover three year periods. The last three year contract expired last year, and the teachers have been working under its terms ever since (so when the teachers say they’ve been working without a contract since last year, that’s true insofar as it goes. They’re being paid under the terms they agreed to four years ago for the old contract).
Teacher salary is determined by two components in the contract: The first is a system of steps and lanes that compromise a salary schedule. The second component is an annual percentage increase that is usually applied to the entire salary schedule. The combination of the steps and lanes and the schedule percentage adjustment determines a teacher’s annual salary.
The system of steps and lanes has been used to recognize experience and educational accomplishment. When a teacher is hired, compensation is based on the number of years of teaching experience, the “step” as well as the level of college or post-college training they have attained, “the lane”. Every year, teachers advance up steps in pay until they reach the top step.
On top of the step and lane increases is an annual contractual overall percentage increase that is described colloquially as “cost of living adjustment” or COLA.
- The 2014 override was not passed to pay teachers more.
This, to me, is the most insulting argument that the GTA is making since, again, I was one of the people out there campaigning for the override. It was never about salary increases. It was about providing stability to the system, which included paying teachers what they were making at the time. It did not foresee raises.
I defy anyone to provide any documentation substantiating that claim. You won’t see it because it’s not true. That’s a Kellyanne Conway sized lie.
Now, I have two kids in the school system. I’ve dedicated countless, countless hours to campaigning for an override in 2014 to provide financial stability to our schools. Not for nothing, but of the five people on the Board of Selectmen, only one other person, Bruce Spinney, can say the same thing. Outside of the five people on the School Committee, Bruce and maybe a handful of other people, there are not any Grafton elected or appointed officials who have been as outspoken in favor of the schools in the last five years than I have. That’s not me bragging, that’s just a fact. I’ve been there, and I continue to stick up for the schools in my position as FinComm chair.
But the GTA’s position is ludicrous. They should accept the School Committee’s latest offer and run.
The GTA’s position is simple enough, and it’s basically this: annual Grafton teacher salary is low compared to surrounding communities like Millbury, Shrewsbury and Westborough. That’s true insofar as it goes, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. I’ve written this before, but it bears repeating, so here goes:
Presently, Grafton teachers are paid, on average, $67,559, according to the Department of Education website (click the link to follow along).
Neighboring Millbury teachers make on average $75,778. Neighboring Westborough teachers make, on average, $78,661. Neighboring Shrewsbury teachers make $75,488. Neighboring community numbers are more reflective of what the market rate is for good teachers in the area. So, by those numbers, the GTA has a point – teachers in Grafton are underpaid.
But wait, there’s more. Although Grafton teachers make less money than Millbury teachers, on a per teacher basis, Grafton spends more per year on teachers than Millbury, $10 million to $15 million annually, respectively. Why? Because we have more teachers than they do. We’re simply better staffed. As a result, our educational achievement is higher. Quick, pick a school system for your kid: Millbury or Grafton? Thought so.
Meanwhile, Shrewsbury spends $29 million annually on teacher salaries. We spend $15 million. Anyone here believe we should spend twice as much on teachers, or that we should lay off our entire police force to be able to afford it? Didn’t think so.
And Westborough? They have slightly more FTE’s (budget talk for “teachers” which includes instructional aids and other staff) than we do and they spend $21 million on teachers, roughly. Want to be them? So do I. All you have to do is re-route Route 9 through Grafton, and rezone the common and Worcester Street for twice as much business and traffic and you’re there.
This is all a long way of saying that we are not these neighboring communities. We’re just not. Anyone who tells you otherwise has something to sell you.
Westborough? Westborough’s annual revenue for FY2017 was $103,964,622. Grafton’s, by comparison was…
Wait for it.
Wait for it.
They operate 40% better than we do. We spend about 60% of what they do. How are we that far off, again?
Bottom line? We don’t want to be Millbury and we can’t afford to be Shrewsbury or Westborough.
And that’s before we even get to the sorry state of our own budget. If projections are accurate, we’ll be running a deficit by FY2020, assuming revenue and expenses stay relatively constant. By FY 20, projections are that Grafton will be $210,212 in the hole. In FY21, that number jumps to $668,016. Again, that’s before we give anyone a raise. We can’t even afford what we’re doing now.
And what we’re doing now is fairly reasonable, if marginally below what teachers in Millbury make. Here’s the step and lane chart, for FY 15-16. Do note that teachers haven’t started on Step 1 in a couple years now. We hire straight to Step 2.
So, here comes the important part: Given Proposition 2.5’s constraints, municipal budgeting is a zero-sum game. If you raise individual teacher salaries you have to cut the number of teachers you have.
I had this one person on the Grafton News website tell me that their teacher friends are preparing resumes due to our “low” teacher salary. Are you insane? Do you know what will happen if the GTA has their way? A whole bunch of you will be let go because the budget increase will not be above 5.25%! So, yeah, get those resumes ready. You’ll need them.
As a parent, why would I want that? Why would I want fewer teachers?
Another called bullshit on the class size argument by pointing out her math class size already was 32 students. Well, I hope this person was not actually a teacher because that’s a ludicrous thing to argue. Your class size is high not because of Grafton’s salary structure, but despite it. Pay teachers more, and teachers get cut, that only means that 32 turns into 35. No one wants that.
The last argument that they make is that the administrators Grafton hires are paid on par with administrators from other communities. They always point to like one or two vice principals. Poor vice principals. What a shit gig. Everyone thinks that you’re useless. Students. Teachers. Parents. Meanwhile, all you do is take the crap work the principal and department heads don’t want to do until someone finally hires you as a principal, and you can start shuffling the crap to someone else.
Anyway, you could fire every new administrator hired in Grafton since 2014 and still not have enough money to pay for a year’s worth of salary increases. That argument is dumb.
Now, I can see where people would be confused. You’ve seen the police get raises of upwards of 14%. You’ve heard Selectman Brook Padgett tell you that this town is in great financial position. So, I completely understand your dismay.
Fact of the matter is, though, Grafton doesn’t have the money for raises. In fact, we don’t really even have the money to give teachers what they make right now.
It’s not entirely Grafton’s fault, either. Since proposition 2.5 was passed in 1980, Grafton has passed exactly one override. In the interim, since 2002, we’ve watched as state aid to Grafton has declined as a percentage of our budget from close to 30%, to closer to 20%.
Why? Do you remember voting for tax decreases in the 1990s that brought your income tax down from 5.9% to 5%? Well, there you go. Congratulations. I hope your newfound wealth is treating you well. We can’t afford teachers, to say nothing of healthcare and special education requirements, but at least we’re making great personal financial decisions.
In all seriousness, are you looking for someone to blame? You could blame the school committee, but if you do, you’re an idiot. I know each of those people personally, and you will not find five people in Grafton more dedicated to teachers and public education. You could blame Jay Cummings, but again, you’d be an idiot. God help us if Jay ever leaves. He’s smart, polite, transparent and patient. Above all he cares. I’ve worked with a few superintendents in my time and, believe me, they’re not all like that.
You could blame the selectmen, but what’s the point? The leadership is bad, and they say stupid things like “we’re in great financial shape” that make it seem like they’re either dumb or they’re lying. But they can’t print money. Outside the lack of diligence, and the fact that they don’t seem to understand proposition 2.5 or the optics of it when they’re giving out big, non-school raises, it’s not really their fault, either.
Me? I blame the state. The deal we made way back in 1980 with Proposition 2.5 is that localities were going to ease up on tax payers, and Beacon Hill would make up the difference. Thirty years later, enough attrition and a lack of voter diligence combined to let people conveniently forget that fact.
I also blame the voters. I blame the people who assail public servants on line, and say things like “you’re hurting our kids” about this contract dispute, and they want their schools funded, but they also want tax cuts. I blame the people who lash out anonymously, but then wouldn’t be caught dead at a budget presentation. I blame people for a criminal lack of understanding of how their community works. Yeah, you’re busy. We’re all busy, friend. Some of us show up to budget meetings anyway.
I got absolutely crucified on the Grafton News today by a few anonymous commentators on the Grafton News who thought I was being “aggressive” toward commentators (teachers) when I suggested that if they disagreed with me about my contention that the deal they were offered is good in light of our finances, that they could work elsewhere.
I was called a “disgrace” for suggesting, very gently, that as much as we’d all love to pay teachers “market value” (which is, I assume, what other neighboring communities make), we don’t have the money for more. When I asked these same people how they would find the money, using facts and figures, they said they couldn’t because there is no transparency.
Bullshit. Not only can you show up to FinComm Meetings, but all the information you could ever need is on line. Here is the school budget information. Here is the town budget information. It’s all public. No one is hiding the ball from you.
So, look, you want to be on school committee and fix this tremendous injustice? Go for it? You want my job? You’re welcomed to it, but you’re going to have to show up with some facts, or we’re going to go round and round.