In an unprecedented move, Schenectady’s teacher union took on the sacred cow of union contracts this summer: guaranteed lifetime raises.
To avoid painful layoffs, union members chopped their most beloved perk in half. Over the next 25 years, Schenectady teachers will receive half as much as they used to receive in pre-set raises they call “step increases.”
In a step system, teachers get a raise every year, progressing up one step with each year of experience. Before the step increases were negotiated, Schenectady teachers who started at $44,649 this year would have eventually worked their way to a top pay of $144,000.
By the numbers
At look at teachers’ pay around the Capital Region (All calculations are for full-time teachers with master’s degrees):
First step: $42,384
Last step (25): $85,905
Average salary for principals: $97,356
Salary of the top paid teacher: $94,432
First step: $47,325
Last step (30): $96,398
Average salary for principals: $129,053
Salary of the top paid teacher: $101,059
First step: $40,804
Last step (23): $87,207
Average salary for principals: $101,264
Salary of the top paid teacher: $106,819
First step: $42,337
Last step (25): $100,015
Average salary for principals: $100,686
Salary of the top paid teacher: $105,825
First step: $38,667
Last step (25): $77,739
Average salary for principals: $99,834
Salary of the top paid teacher: $95,590
First step: $38,561
Last step (26): $93,860
Average salary for principals: $116,806
Salary of the top paid teacher: Not provided
First step: $44,649
Last step (25): $90,048
Average salary for principals: $137,523
Salary of the top paid teacher: $101,439
The average salary for an elementary school teacher in the Capital Region was $70,280, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For middle school, it is $74,880; for high school, it is $72,720.
Instead, under the new contract, their top pay will be $86,600. That’s lower than those who are near retirement are making now; today’s experienced teachers will finish their careers at $94,000.
The change will save the Schenectady district money, but officials said the step increases are still more than the district’s taxpayers can afford to pay.
“I’ve got the tax cap and I’ve got a generally declining tax base,” said Schenectady school board President Cathy Lewis. “It was definitely helpful. But I am still concerned.”
Many school officials elsewhere are beginning to question whether they can afford the growing cost of pensions and salaries, particularly since teacher contracts usually set in stone 25 years of step increases. Among local school districts analyzed by The Sunday Gazette, none of those annual raises were below 2.8 percent — and many averaged about 5 percent a year.
In Schenectady, the situation was so dire that one school board member said the district would be unable to pay the contractual step increases in just two years. Layoffs were a certainty.
That’s why the union agreed to do what every other local union said it would never do: change the step increases. They agreed to cut their average scheduled raise from 5 percent to 2.8 percent.
Every teacher contract in New York state includes a “step schedule.” But it’s not the only raise given to teachers. When contracts are negotiated every few years, teachers generally ask for — and get — a second raise each year of at least 2 percent, as well as the step increase. Sometimes they also increase the percentage of the step increases.
That means that in Schenectady, where the step increases averaged 5 percent a year, teachers were generally getting total raises of at least 7 percent each year.
In the new contract, teachers in Schenectady cut back on that second raise too. They agreed to not take the extra raise this year. They will get a 0.5 percent raise in 2013-2014, on top of their scheduled step increase, and a 2 percent raise in 2014-2015, bringing their total raise that year to about 4.8 percent.
Leaders of other unions said they would not reduce their step schedules during negotiations. Schenectady Federation of Teachers President Juliet Benaquisto said Schenectady made the hard choice to change the step schedule in hopes of avoiding some layoffs.
“It was always on my mind and those of us who were negotiating,” she said. “It may not be able to save every position, but it should go a long way.”
Layoffs generally hit new teachers first. But the contracts are decided by the entire union, which includes just a handful of new teachers. Without a majority vote, no contract changes can go through.
No other union locally is revamping the step schedule so radically. Instead, many are giving up one year of their second raise. Scotia-Glenville, Schalmont and Niskayuna all gave up that raise for one year, but are taking their step increase. In a different approach, Mohonasen teachers delayed their step increase until February this year.
But each union said the step increases were too valuable to give up altogether.
Niskayuna Union President Donna Baumgartner said her union gave other concessions, including an increase in prescription co-pays and giving back an early retirement incentive, because it did not want to lose the step increase.
The step increases can vary, but Niskayuna’s step increases average 4 percent. Schenectady’s average step raise was 5 percent for many years before the cuts this year. An analysis of the current Mohonasen and Scotia-Glenville contracts shows that the average step raise is 4.9 percent.
But some poorer, rural districts have much smaller raises. In Gloversville, the average scheduled raise is 2.8 percent.
Statewide, the average teacher step increases this year ranged from 1.7 percent to 4.2 percent, based on a survey of more than 500 school districts by the New York State School Boards Association. Spokesman David Albert said steps are given to reward teachers for accruing another year of experience.
“The longer you’ve been there, the more you make. It’s all based on experience and longevity,” he said.
Others said the step increases are meant to compensate teachers for the costs of their continuing education. “Teacher salaries reflect the advanced degrees that teachers are required to have and pay for out of their own pockets,” said New York State United Teachers union spokesman Carl Korn.
Since 2004, teachers have been required to get 150 hours of professional development every five years. In Schenectady, the district used to provide programming for that requirement, but cut much of it to save money. Many other districts are also now requiring teachers to pay for at least some of their own classes.
But Schenectady officials said the classes don’t have to be expensive. A company recommended by Schenectady for online classes charges $139 for 24 hours of lessons on differentiated instruction, classroom management and other topics. Other courses can be far more expensive, but generally cost far less than the typical $2,000 to $4,000 per year the step increases amount to.
Some residents have questioned those increases on the grounds that many workers in the private sector have not received similar raises during the recession. They argue that raises for public-sector employees can’t outpace the raises of those whose taxes must pay for the public-sector salaries.
But Scotia-Glenville Teachers Association President Eric DeCarlo says people should consider that teachers start at a lower pay compared to other professionals with master’s degrees.
“In most other careers, it doesn’t take 23 years to get to the top pay of that career,” he said.
Korn said the step schedule was first created in the late 1950s and early 1960s to compensate for extraordinarily low starting salaries. “School boards said to teachers, ‘Give us your time, give us your experience, commit yourself to our school district and over the years, we will gradually bring you up to what is full salary,’ ” he said.
Margaret McLane, interim dean of the School of Education at the College of Saint Rose, said starting salaries for teachers are better than in previous decades.
“In the past, teacher salaries were considered relatively low compared to other professions,” McLane said.
Many union spokesmen, including Korn, said teacher salaries are still low compared to other professions, such as engineering, that require the same level of education.
But that’s not as true as it once was. Teacher salaries are catching up, with starting salaries increasing at a faster pace than engineering salaries.
Decades ago, new engineers made more than twice as much as new teachers. But an engineer with a master’s degree now starts at about $58,500, according to the National Society for Professional Engineers, That’s about $18,000 a year more than the typical teacher in this area — and only $11,000 more than a starting teacher in Niskayuna.
Other professions that require master’s degrees do not lead to the same salary level. Social workers with a master’s start at about $30,000, according to a survey by union AFSCME. Their top salary averages $55,000, less than an engineer’s starting salary.
Private sector lags
And for most teachers in the Capital Region, their salaries are far above the average salary of their district’s taxpayers.
Schenectady’s median household income is $37,607, according to the U.S. Census, which uses an average of all wage-earners in a household. A new teacher in the Schenectady school district — with just a bachelor’s degree — has a starting salary of $43,225.
In Gloversville, a small city district, the average household income is $31,994. The typical new teacher is paid $42,775.
Only in Saratoga is the new-teacher salary below average household income. Saratoga’s average household makes $61,184. The average new teacher makes $43,622 and gets roughly a 3.5 percent raise each year, according to the step schedule. School officials there are still trying to negotiate an affordable teachers contract. The last contract ran through 2010.
Under a state law, teachers still get their step increases after a contract expires, even if negotiations drag on for years. The Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law requires employers to keep all contract provisions in force after the expiration date of the contract. Statewide, school board members have said the Triborough Amendment limits their bargaining power and ability to seek concessions.
“They’re getting a built-in raise — even without a contract,” said Albert of the New York State School Boards Association.
Korn of NYSUT takes the opposite view, saying this is necessary to make sure that school districts bargain in good faith. “If a contract expires and salary steps are frozen, what would be the incentive for a school board to come to the table and negotiate a fair agreement?” he said. “Collective bargaining would become collective begging.”
Albert disagrees, saying school boards would still negotiate in good faith as required by law, even if step increases were removed from the equation.
“Obviously, no district is looking to cut out somebody’s salary or health insurance once the contract expires,” he said.
But as salary costs rise, school officials are getting more desperate. Even after the cuts to Schenectady’s teacher raises, layoffs are still a possibility, according to the school board president.
After two years of cutting few positions while finding more efficient ways to operate, Lewis said the district is running out of ways to cut back. Teacher salaries are the obvious target.
They make up a significant portion of each district’s budget — about one-third. For Niskayuna, that’s $25.5 million out of a $77.2 million budget. In smaller schools like Scotia-Glenville, teachers cost $15.3 million out of a $47 million budget.
Until recently, districts could manage that cost by asking taxpayers to pay more. Niskayuna taxpayers funded roughly two-thirds — $49 million — of the district’s budget. By contrast, Schenectady taxpayers funded only one-third — $52 million — of the total $155.5 million budget. The rest comes from state and federal aid and other revenue sources.
But now the state has imposed a limit to how much a district can increase its tax levy, which is roughly 2 percent but varies based on several factors. Any increases above the limit require 60 percent voter approval.
Pension expenses and some other items are exempt, but the main cost in the budget is not. That is forcing districts to find some way to manage the rising cost of salaries.
In Schenectady, layoffs might be the only answer left.
“I’m not sure what we’re going to do,” Lewis said, speaking of the 2013-2014 budget. “It’s getting more and more difficult to meet the tax cap.”