U-CF School Board tangles over budget and teacher contract sticking points
● By J. Chambless
By John Chambless
The budget approved by the Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board in June is still causing some friction, particularly in light of the ongoing contract negotiations in the district.
At the board's Aug. 17 meeting, board president Victor Dupuis announced that the board and administration will meet with a fact-finder from the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, after which the fact-finder will issue a written report by Aug. 31. The board will then vote on the report's findings at a special Sept. 8 public meeting at the district office.
Board member Jeff Hellrung gave his perspective on the contract negotiations, saying that there are three legs to anyone's retirement plan: “The goal should be to replace 80 to 90 percent of your working income in your retirement,” he said. “That's the world that most of our constituents live in. With our teachers, we have a defined benefit plan, and for our teachers who were hired before July 1 of 2011, they earn 2.5 percent per year of their salary, times the number of years they teach. To get an unreduced benefit, they have to teach for 35 years. So if they started teaching right out of college, they might be 57 years old or so. They would get 87.5 percent of their salary, just with their work component of their retirement savings. If they retired at age 62 or so, they could get 100 percent. A teacher that starts later in life can get 2.5 percent per year times 30 years, so that would give them 75 percent of their income for the duration of their retirement period.
“In return, teachers hired prior to 2011 pay 7.5 percent of their salary, and the district also pays,” Hellrung continued. “This year, the district pays 25.84 percent. Next year we're going to pay about 29 percent because our PSERS plan is under-funded. So, in conclusion, teachers have a very generous defined benefit plan. They're entitled to it. I don't begrudge it. But it's very expensive to the district. So I think the biggest financial obstacle right now is the combination of Act 1 limits on tax increases, with these PSERS rate increases. For that reason, the salary increases are lower than what I would hope they'd be. I just wanted to give you an idea of the dilemma that we have, in hopes of fostering more understanding of what we're up against. I'm hopeful that we can work all this out and get a resolution that's satisfactory to both sides.”
Regarding the 2.2 percent tax increase passed by the board and administration in June, board member Keith Knauss used several charts, one of which showed the district's high and improving SAT scores over the past 17 years.
“Our district had been known for its good schools. Now we're known for our great schools,” Knauss said. “What's remarkable about this progress is that it's been made with modest spending. We're neither the highest spending district, nor the lowest. We're in the middle of the pack, yet we have excellent results. We understand that the trust of the 75 percent of our residents who don't have students in our schools is precious. We managed as a board through teacher contract turmoil in 2010 and 2013, and we'll do it successfully again.
“But I was alarmed and surprised when [school board member] Dr. Rock gave an impassioned lecture in June, telling us that some of us don't have the best interests of the school district in mind and that we're 'on a slippery slope leading to incremental degradation,'” Knauss said. “Those comments were triggered by a vote for a 2.2 percent tax increase rather than a 2.6 percent tax increase. Could less than a half percent difference lead us on a path to ruin? Does Dr. Rock -- a school director with a scant 18 months of experience on the school board -- have some insight that others do not have?
“I've examined his supporting arguments, and they have no merit,” Knauss said. “To bring this full circle, we have a great district. There are several members of the board who voted for a tax increase less than what Dr. Rock would like. To suggest that we're on a slippery slope leading to degradation is, in my opinion, wrong and counter-productive.”
In his response, Rock pulled up several Power Point charts of his own and launched into an economics lesson based on “the last 40 years of studying the politics and economics of growth and development in Southeast Asia,” he said. “When I joined the board 18 months ago, I didn't know the academic literature. I havc spent that time catching up. When I made the comments at the board meeting about incremental degradation, I had in my mind an argument that I hadn't fully put together. What I've done this evening is put it together for you.”
Delving into what economists have called “The cost disease in higher education,” Rock pointed out that, “Our cost per student -- the cost of providing an education here -- rises significantly faster than the consumer price index. It's getting bigger over time.
“Why are costs increasing faster in U-CF than the CPI? The answer is: The only way we can keep good employees -- administrators, teachers and support staff -- is to raise their salaries. Their salaries have to raise a some percent higher than the CPI. On average, an employee in U-CF, since 2003, has experienced a 1 percent real wage increase over and above the inflation rate. So far, we've lived up to our obligations of increasing real salaries by something higher than the CPI.
“That's what causes the cost disease,” Rock said. “Our real costs have gone up because we've paid our workers higher real wages, and there's been no productivity increase. We're stuck with that. That's part of life in every college and university in this country. It's part of life in every public school and charter school in this country.
“We have to be diligent in controlling costs. We've been pretty good at that. But it will never be enough by itself. That leaves us with three cruel choices:
“1. We can control or try to eliminate cost disease by allowing real educational quality to fall, by allowing real compensation to fall. If that happens, good employees will leave. We'll be left with a weaker administration, a weaker teaching staff and a weaker support staff.
“2. We can try to sustain educational quality by financing rising real compensation for employees, by allowing our costs to rise higher than the real rate of inflation, and that's what we've been doing.
“3. We could try to try increase productivity by increasing class size or increasing online courses.
“Why did I say we were on a slippery slope to incremental degradation? My fear is that the budget increase that we passed this last time is the first step towards failing to understand that if we don't do better, we're going to experience a decrease in educational quality. I don't want to see that happen.
“Can we afford to do what we're doing? Can we be a little more generous on the tax increase side, so that we can continue to increase real salaries above the cost of inflation and sustain our high quality?
My fear is that what's lacking in this room is the political will to do it,” Rock concluded, getting applause from the teachers at the meeting.
Later, during final comments from board members, Knauss said, “Dr. Rock, I look forward to reviewing your presentation in detail. I'll note that you put a marker up there for teacher salary increases at 1 percent above the CPI. The offer on the table beats that right now.”
In her comments, board member Kathleen Do said, “Mr. Knauss talked a lot about what we've achieved, how many blue ribbon schools we have and all the accolades we've received. We have outstanding district. But in the end, we have incredible teachers. Whether we want to talk about economics, I believe it's a matter of respect and dignity to thank our teachers and say you are the reason we are where we are. That has to be in the forefront of our minds as we continue our contract discussions. I have neighbors who are concerned about the tax increase, but in the end, every single family will say the same thing: 'I want to be in Unionville. You have the best schools and the best teachers.'”
For more information, visit www.ucfsd.org.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.