It’s because of “contractual obligations,” school superintendents, municipal and county leaders are fond of saying when they try to explain why their budgets, and thus our taxes, have gone up so much again. As if those union contracts were somehow just visited upon them, totally outside their control, instead of something they agreed to, if not helped negotiate.
Perhaps the terms of the contract wouldn’t be so generous for public employees, whose salaries and benefits account for the major part of school or government spending, if there were more transparency — i.e. if taxpayers got to see and analyze the negotiated contract after the union approved it but before the school board or elected officials did. That’s what the Empire State Center for New York State Policy has been calling for recently, and it’s an excellent idea.
There is no requirement that tentative contracts be kept secret until final ratification, but that’s what many school districts and governments do. They often cite the state Freedom of Information Law, which exempts information whose disclosure “would impair present or imminent contract awards or collective bargaining agreements.” But the purpose of that exemption is to not advantage or disadvantage one or the other side during negotiations. As Robert Freeman of the Committee on Open Government says, “Once a contract goes to rank-and-file members, negotiations are over.” The only reason to keep it from the public then is to make it easier on elected officials, who would otherwise have to answer questions and defend it.
Providing copies of the tentative contract at least one month before the ratification vote — on the Web, at district or government offices and local libraries — would eliminate surprises like the one in the village of Johnson City (outside Binghamton) last year when taxpayers learned the village board had approved a pay raise for the already-very-well-compensated firefighters that totals 41 percent over five years.
Ideally, the contract would be accompanied by information giving the net financial impact of all provisions, including annual and cumulative costs; step and longevity increments (which can turn fairly modest-sounding 3 percent raises into 5 percent-plus raises); and the methodology for judging the savings from any union concessions or retirement incentives like the $6,000 each the Schenectady district just gave eight teachers (some of whom were planning to retire anyway).
On the other extreme, the state still has not made available its new contract with the state police union — six months after announcing it.
We have seen where a lack of transparency got us with Wall Street. It’s time to end the secrecy over public employee contracts.