During the public comment portion of the Highland School Board meeting on Monday, March 29, Rizzi read aloud from a New York Times article titled “The New Math: Teachers Share Recession’s Pain.” According to the story, teachers in Long Island’s William Floyd district forewent a collective $1 million salary increase to help restore 19 teaching positions; and Tarrytown and Tuckahoe teachers gave back $150,000 and $95,000, respectively, to maintain district programs.
Rizzi asked the Highland Teachers’ Association (HTA) and the district to act accordingly by considering a salary freeze for 2010-11.
“By giving back to the community, what you’re doing is you’re saving your own job, you’re saving your own future. By taking, taking and taking, you run a very real and high risk of bankrupting the community,” said Rizzi. He asked the board to reconsider contractual and longevity increases, and percentage of medical premiums paid.
Salaries and benefits account for 73 percent of the 2009-2010 $35,247,845 district budget.
The HTA has been operating without a new contract since the end of the 2007-08 school year. That year, Steps A-19 (representing teachers with 1-19 years of professional experience) received a 3.2 percent salary increase; Step 20 received a 4 percent increase plus longevity gains of $2,600 per annum for those with 21+ years of service. These negotiated raises are in addition to state-mandated step increases of approximately 2.74 percent per year (i.e. an average HTA member received a raise of just under 6 percent in 2007-08).
When a new agreement cannot be reached before a contract expires, the district honors the last negotiated rates. That means most HTA members received a 3.2 percent raise in addition to step increases in 2007-08, 2008-09 and 2009-10.
“I ask the board tonight to help our community. Even if we gave the teachers a 0 percent contractual increase and kept the steps, that increase is going to be better than the 1.5 percent that was average in the public sector for 2009,” said Rizzi.
Highland Elementary School physical education teacher Paul Latino, former president of the HTA, said his union made substantial concessions in recent years because a town-wide revaluation raised concerns that skyrocketing home values would raise taxes, pricing residents on fixed incomes out of the area.
In 2003-04, Steps 1-19 were set to receive a 3.8 percent increase. Negotiations were reopened, and those steps instead received 0 percent increases above step for 2003-04 and 2004-05. In 2005-06, the increase reverted to 3.2 percent over step.
Step 20 was not affected by the freeze, receiving a 3.85 percent increase 2003-04 and 2004-05, and 4 percent from 2005-06 onward. Latino said the consecutive zeros were unprecedented in New York State at that time.
“That was huge. [In 2003], we could not find any bargaining unit that had given two consecutive 0s back to the district, so for anyone to stand up here and say that this bargaining unit has never done anything, it’s as few years ago as 2003 and 2004... We do expect to be competitive and that’s all that the HTA has ever asked to be. Right now both of our bargaining units are the lowest paid in Ulster County, on average... We’re proud of what we’ve done to help out this community,” said Latino.
Rizzi reassumed the microphone in response to Latino’s comments.
“If there were give backs then, it’s not foreign to us. Let me just say this: Things are much more in 2009-2010 than they were in 2004,” he said.
Resident Andy Holloway said that desperate times called for the consideration of all cutbacks. “There really should be a consideration of cuts across the board, not just in certain targeted areas. If we have an opinion on the budget, it doesn’t necessarily affect how we feel about our teachers. There are business decisions and how we feel about people, and I think we have to separate that,” he said.
Recently, the HTA and Highland School District have mutually declared an impasse in contract negotiations, said Superintendent Deborah Haab.
The next step is formal mediation, said President Al Barone.
Maria Peterson, of Citizens’ Alliance to Reform Education (CARE), encouraged the board to release the rejected contract proposals to the public. She cited Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, who determined that such information would be obtainable under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).
“I know the board is aware that you can disclose the last agreements that were turned down by both parties. Will you be doing that?” said Peterson.
Barone said the board had not discussed that possibility.
(The Highland School District did not respond to Peterson’s March 29 FOIL request for the documents by press time.)
The board is scheduled to continue budget discussions on Tuesday, April 6.