School districts throughout the Capital Region, some in public, others in private, have begun seeking salary freezes from teachers unions.
Local districts are facing unprecedented budget shortfalls as they grapple with contractually obligated increases in salary and health insurance costs, state mandates such as pension cost increases and $1.5 billion in state education aid cuts proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
So far, the Albany City School District, the Niskayuna Central School District, the Mohonasen Central School District, the Broadalbin-Perth Central School District and the Shenendehowa Central School District have all made public pleas for their teachers unions and other bargaining units to accept salary freezes in order to lessen projected layoffs for the 2011-12 school year.
Niskayuna announced Thursday that it is seeking a salary freeze from all bargaining units to help close a $6 million budget gap. District officials project the salary freeze would save $1.1 million.
“The unprecedented reduction in state and federal funding coupled with rising costs threatens the district’s ability to provide programs and services to our children,” Niskayuna Superintendent Kevin Baughman said in a news release. “We need to consider all options to close the budget gap, including the shared sacrifice of a salary freeze. ”
Broadalbin-Perth made the same announcement Wednesday, projecting $800,000 in savings from freezing every district employee’s salary. Broadalbin-Perth faces a $4.1 million budget shortfall.
New York School Boards Association Executive Director Tim Kremer said school districts have few options besides asking for union concessions or major layoffs.
“For the first time in a long time, you’re starting to see unions and school officials sitting down and looking at the numbers and realizing we aren’t going to be able to make ends meet going the way we are,” Kremer said.
He said school districts are probably going to have to solve their budget problems without much help from the state in the form of mandate relief. He was a member of Cuomo’s Mandate Relief Redesign Team, which presented its report to the governor last week. He said the report is being viewed as “universally weak” by school board officials across the state, in part because it contained no suggestion that the state reform the Triborough Amendment, the state law requiring all of the provisions of a union contract remain in place until a new deal is agreed upon.
Triborough guarantees annual “step raises” for most teachers in New York state even if labor contracts have expired unless unions agree to a pay freeze. Kremer said reforming Triborough to eliminate the automatic raises during years when the contract has expired is the key to reducing costs for school districts.
“We need to reform Triborough. If the unions won’t come back to the bargaining table, because they know they’re guaranteed their step raises and they’ve got a good fringe benefit package, then school boards can’t get the freezes and the concessions, and the only thing management can do is lay people off,” he said.
But only so many layoffs are legally possible at most districts. Many teacher union contracts contain a maximum number of classes a high school teacher can teach without extra pay and New York state has a minimum number of credits required for a high school diploma. Some contracts also include a maximum number of students per class. Some unions may reject pay freezes because the majority of their members know their jobs are safe.
Schenectady City School District, which faces an $11 million budget shortfall for 2011-12, agreed to new contracts last year for all of its bargaining units except for its teachers. The new contracts grant an average 3 percent to 4 percent annual raise for employees. For the 2011-12 school year, Schenectady’s teachers are only due their step raises unless a new contract is approved, but the step raises are themselves an average of 3 percent annually.
Schenectady school board President Cathy Lewis said she sees no point in passing a resolution in public requesting a salary freeze from teachers. She said the school board will have to try to bargain with the teachers to get that concession. Lewis said the union has not yet approached the school board with an offer to freeze salaries.
“At this point we aren’t taking that step of passing a resolution, because it’s very one-sided. It’s very unilateral. We’re trying to work together,” she said.
Schenectady Federation of Teachers President Juliet Benaquisto could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Fonda-Fultonville Central School District Superintendent James Hoffman said he’s had private discussions with his district’s teachers union about a salary freeze that could save about $520,000. His district faces a $2 million budget shortfall. He said he’s crafted a plan that would raise taxes by about $500,000, freeze wages and spend about $500,000 of the district’s reserves. The rest of the shortfall could be paid for by eliminating 51⁄2 staff positions through attrition.
Hoffman said Fonda-Fultonville’s teachers are still hoping the state will provide more education aid, but have told him they will be willing to consider a salary freeze or a smaller raise.
“They’re hanging on to hope that the governor will come up with some extra money and they won’t have to do it,” he said of the wage freeze. “In my heart of hearts I believe this will be the worst year. My plan offers a chance for no layoffs or program reductions and provides for shared sacrifice.”
New York State United Teachers spokesman Carl Korn said his organization believes the best way to achieve contract concessions for school districts is to keep negotiations secret from the public until deals are reached. He wouldn’t condemn the school districts that have requested salary freezes, calling that “an expected tactic.”
“In those cases where school boards pound their chests and demand concessions, what we see is pushback [from local unions],” he said.
Korn said NYSUT continues to lobby Cuomo and the Legislature to extend the state income tax hike on earners making more than $200,000 a year, the so-called “millionaire’s tax,” as a means of eliminating the state-aid cut for education. The income tax increase was enacted three years ago and is set to expire Dec. 31.
Cuomo has not indicated he favors the extension of the tax on high-income New Yorkers. He has mentioned several times that a voluntary salary freeze by school district employees could absorb most of his proposed state aid cut without the need for layoffs. The governor has issued press releases praising teachers unions in districts that have agreed to salary freezes.