March 15, 2010

School-contract sticker shock

DIETER BRADBURY

— KEY CHANGES NEGOTIATED IN THE PORTLAND EDUCATION ASSOCIATION CONTRACTBy

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Staff Photo by John Ewing: 20070626 Wednesday, June 25, 2008...Portland School Committee meeting at Casco Bay High School. Human Resources Director Joline Hart addresses the commitee regarding Portland's new teacher's contract.

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Staff Writer

Forty-two public-school educators in Portland got pay raises ranging from 20 to 53 percent during a four-month stretch in the school year that ended in June. They were among 218 people who received an average pay raise of 12.8 percent -- thanks to a union contract negotiated in 2006 that school officials now acknowledge was financially shaky.

The raises went to teachers and others who continued their education by taking college courses, attending workshops or completing special projects, such as mentoring student teachers, leading field trips or writing letters of reference for college-bound students.

The number of teachers and other educators who moved into higher salary brackets under the contract was three times the number forecast by the school district. Their raises added $854,000 in additional salary spending to the fiscal year 2008 school budget.

That's 144 percent more than the budgeted amount of $350,000.

The contract also increased the number of college courses eligible for tuition reimbursement from two courses a year to three a year, per person. The increase drove total tuition reimbursement spending in the 2007 and 2008 fiscal years to $716,588.

That's 46 percent more than the budgeted amount of $490,750.

The spending increases occurred under a contract with a new salary scale that rewards union members for continuing their educations. It was proposed during negotiations by Jonathan Radtke, then a member of the Portland School Committee, who teaches in the Falmouth school system. The union embraced the contract, which was approved unanimously by the School Committee in November 2006.

Radtke said in an interview that the committee discussed the budget impact in depth.

''We knew that in the initial implementation, there would be some up-front costs,'' he said, ''but we didn't see that it would be wildly out of line.''

Radtke said he was surprised to learn that some teachers received such large raises.

''I'm not sure anybody on any side would have predicted that,'' he said.

The salary information was contained in school district records obtained by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram under Maine's right-to-know law.

The contract covers the 650 members of the Portland Education Association, the union that represents teachers and other educational staff. Records examined by the newspaper show that a third of union members moved into a higher salary bracket -- and one in 15 advanced by two brackets.

The costs of those raises and tuition reimbursement forced the School Committee to renegotiate the contract in June to bring salary spending under control.

Those negotiated changes will restrict eligibility for salary-bracket increases beginning with the current fiscal year, which started July 1. They will also freeze the base on which salary steps are calculated and cap spending to make costs more predictable.

Still, the budget for association member salaries is expected to go up by 5.6 percent, or $2.1 million, in this fiscal year, and by at least 5 percent in each of the two following years.

Overall, spending on salaries for members of the association has climbed about $3.8 million, or 11.2 percent, since the contract was negotiated, from $33.8 million in fiscal year 2006 to a projected $37.6 million in fiscal year 2008, the district's budget records show.

The added salary costs created by the contract will have an impact in the future, as the School Committee uses the higher figures as a floor for successive contracts and the budgets that are tied to them.

LEARNING, NOT LONGEVITY, PAYS OFF

Union leaders, district administrators and School Committee members still defend the concept of rewarding continuing education, the key principle that underlies the original contract. They say that encouraging teachers to keep learning will lead to better student performance, while enabling Portland to attract replacements for the more than 100 veteran teachers who are approaching retirement.

But some also concede that the district was so focused on the underlying concept of linking teacher pay to continuing education that it did a poor job of forecasting what the deal would actually cost taxpayers.

''We made the agreement before all the details were worked out,'' said interim Superintendent Jeanne Whynot-Vickers, who participated in the contract negotiations, ''and that's when you lose control.''

The association is the largest of four unions that represent Portland Public School employees. Most of its members are teachers, but the union also includes guidance counselors, social workers, librarians, nurses and psychological examiners.

They have historically worked under labor contracts that reward them for their educational credentials and the amount of time they spend in the job.

For example, the salary scale in the 2006-07 school year -- the first year covered by the three-year contract -- included salary brackets for a bachelor's, master's, master's intermediate or doctoral degree. Within each bracket, the scale also provided annual step raises for 17 years, for time spent on the job.

After 17 years, the scale provided additional step raises at four- and five-year intervals, up to 31 years. To move into a higher-paying bracket, a teacher had to earn an advanced degree.

Under the 2006-07 scale, a first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree earned $32,682, while a teacher with a doctoral degree who had 31 years on the job earned $64,431.

In the 2007-08 school year, the contract moved teachers off the credential-based scale and onto a ''professional learning-based salary schedule.'' It has five salary brackets and reduces the number of steps based on years in the job from 31 to 10 in each bracket.

Most importantly, the scale allows teachers to move into higher brackets without earning an advanced degree. Instead, teachers earn credit toward raises by completing college courses, attending workshops or carrying out education-related projects in the school or community.

Under the new approach, a beginning teacher with a bachelor's degree earned $33,336 in the 2007-08 school year, and a teacher at the top of the scale in the highest pay bracket earned $78,420.

LONGTIME GOAL FOR TEACHERS

The average salary for classroom teachers in Portland in fiscal year 2008, which ended June 30, was $54,795, according to the Maine Department of Education, which collects financial data from school districts statewide to help calculate the state education subsidy.

Average classroom teacher salaries for nearby districts include $53,852 in Falmouth, $51,142 in South Portland, $50,390 in Cape Elizabeth, $46,675 in Westbrook and $45,837 in Scarborough. The statewide average for classroom teachers is $43,401, Education Department records show.

Whynot-Vickers, the interim superintendent in Portland, said the new salary scale meets the School Committee's demand for a compensation system that favors continuing education over time in the job.

''Over time, we had a number of teachers that really did not engage in professional learning,'' she said. ''We were looking for a way to keep our teachers on top of their game.''

The union's president, Kathleen Casasa, said teachers were receptive to a new salary structure and had been discussing the concept informally with the district for years.

Casasa said teachers wanted a pay system that gave them an incentive for continuing education.

''That resonated with us,'' she said. ''That's what got us here.''

COURSES COUNT TOWARD RAISES

That resonance unleashed a flood of teacher applications for continuing education credit, according to district pay records.

The records show that 218 union members, including 204 teachers, moved into higher salary brackets. They earned an average salary increase of 12.8 percent, according to a newspaper analysis of pay records provided by the district and confirmed by Human Resources Director Joline Hart.

The smallest raise given to a union member who moved into a higher salary bracket was 6.9 percent, the pay records show.

The group that moved into higher brackets included 17 recently hired teachers who were still on probation but were granted salary credit for the same college courses they took to earn their certification. The contract allowed teachers to earn credit for courses taken as far back as 2001.

About 79 percent of the credits that teachers earned toward raises came from classroom or online courses at the University of Southern Maine, the University of New England or other schools, according to district records.

The remaining 21 percent of credits were awarded for attending workshops sponsored by the district, or for completing individual education-related projects no earlier than September 2006, the records show.

One social studies teacher at Portland High School, Suzette Olafsen, moved up two salary brackets, largely on the credit she earned by leading student field trips to China, Greece and Washington, D.C., in 2007. Her pay rose from $51,358 to $66,990, a 30.4 percent increase.

Olafsen declined to comment on the union contract.

Troy Crabtree, another Portland High social studies teacher, earned partial credit toward a higher salary bracket by writing college recommendation letters for 12 students, in addition to attending USM classes. His pay rose from $40,464 to $58,577, a 44.7 percent increase.

Crabtree also declined to comment.

Forty teachers, a guidance counselor and a psychological examiner completed so much continuing education that they moved up two salary brackets, earning raises of 20 percent to 53 percent.

Joseph Robinson, a teacher at Portland Arts and Technology High School, was paid $38,908 in 2006-07, the last year the district used the old salary scale.

He was placed on the new scale in September 2007 and moved up one bracket to a salary of $50,163. In January 2008, his pay was raised again to $58,577.

That's a 51 percent increase over his previous year's salary.

Robinson, who teaches woodworking to special education students, moved up two brackets because of nine courses he completed from 2001 to 2006 at USM, where he is working toward a master's degree in special education. He also took one online course offered by the University of Phoenix.

The district reimbursed him for his tuition expenses.

''I think that rewarding teachers for improving their skills, as opposed to longevity, is a positive move,'' said Robinson, who has been a teacher since 2000 and already holds one master's degree. ''It will give an incentive for top-notch people to want to be in education, rather than go out and get a job in business.''

Mona Leavitt, who led the special education teaching team last year at Reiche School, had a salary increase comparable to Robinson's. Her pay went from $38,596 in 2006-07 to $58,577 in January 2008, a 52 percent increase.

Leavitt moved up two salary brackets by taking 12 courses at USM from 2001 to 2007, with the school district reimbursing her tuition costs. She says the contract will make her a better teacher by encouraging her to continue her education.

''There are several areas I want to be proficient in,'' Leavitt said, ''and I think most people who like education feel the same way.''

Portland High math teacher Dan Deniso's salary increased 24 percent, from $54,004 in 2006-07 to $66,990 in January.

He moved up two salary brackets with credit for college course work, done primarily at USM and the University of New Hampshire from 2002 to 2007, and for his activities at the Maine Department of Education Advanced Placement Summer Institute.

''I think the system isn't perfect,'' said Deniso, whose tuition costs were reimbursed by the district. ''The principle of continuing education for teachers is a good idea.''

VALUE OF TEACHER LEARNING DEBATED

That idea is written directly into a preamble in the salaries section of the contract. It reads: ''We believe that the best predictor of student learning is teacher learning.''

But interviews with educational researchers from around the country turned up scant evidence to support the proposition that teacher learning -- at least as it's defined in the Portland contract -- is the best predictor of student learning.

These researchers said there is plenty of evidence that teacher quality is a strong predictor of student learning. But they cautioned against assuming that teachers who continue their own education are making themselves better classroom instructors.

The Community Training and Assistance Center in Boston, which helps school districts reform how teachers are compensated, is part of the pay-for-performance movement that aims to tie teacher compensation to student achievement.

Executive Director William Slotnick favors using data on student learning to determine what skills classroom teachers ought to acquire. Then, after the teachers have mastered those skills, it's important to follow through to see whether the teacher training has an impact on student learning, he said.

Student test scores, teacher evaluations and other factors should be part of the process for determining whether teachers receive a pay raise, he said.

The agreement that the School Committee reached with the Portland Education Association in the fall of 2006 includes a forthright rejection of a pay-for-performance standard.

''Rather than seeking to create a pay scheme built on measurement of student performance,'' the contract reads, ''this system's goal is to encourage teachers to remain career-long learners, to increase and update their skills, and to be visible models as learners to their students.''

The original contract did not require teachers' education credits to be specifically related to their work in the classroom. As part of the amendments to the contract approved this summer, the district and union are developing guidelines to tighten up eligibility for tuition reimbursement and education credit.

For teachers who seek pay raises based on special projects, a committee of district and union representatives is also writing guidelines to help define how such projects would have to improve student learning, add to teachers' skills or make a ''significant contribution'' to the school district community.

ELIGIBILITY GUIDELINES FACE REVIEW

Francis Troyan, a French teacher at Casco Bay High School who is a member of the committee, said the panel will meet again in September to continue its work, including defining a ''significant contribution.''

At a School Committee meeting in June, Whynot-Vickers, the interim superintendent, said the district and union had agreed to tighten the process for granting continuing education credits to ensure that course work funded by the district is applicable to the teacher's current job.

The requirement goes into effect in September. Applications for continuing education credits are reviewed by Hart, the human resources director, and a rejected application may be appealed to a salary review panel created under the terms of the union contract.

In an interview, Whynot-Vickers defended the contract's broad approach to teacher learning. She cited educational research that emphasizes the importance of highly trained, knowledgeable classroom teachers.

That viewpoint is shared by Michelle Tucci, who teaches Latin and Greek at Portland High School and is pursuing a degree in educational administration.

''I think that what my classes have added is a depth of knowledge, which does affect how I work, how I approach my classes,'' Tucci said.

But national advocates for teacher compensation reform say it is important to tie teacher learning to their work in the classroom.

''I think that it's OK to reward teachers for more study, but it has to be related to the needs of their school and their kids,'' said Cynthia Brown, director of education policy at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., which supports efforts to reward good teachers with better pay.

Dan Goldhaber, a professor at the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education, took issue with the idea that rewarding teachers for getting more education -- regardless of what they study -- will benefit their students.

''We know that good teachers can make a big difference, but it's not typically tied to their observable credentials,'' he said.

''If the localities were careful about saying, 'If you get this kind of experience, we're going to count it,' then that might work.''

'THAT WAS JUST OUR BEST ESTIMATE'

Whether it works or not, the contract has taken a toll on the Portland school budget.

In its first year, before the new salary system was introduced, the contract gave all members a 3 percent increase on the base salary. However, the School Committee had budgeted for only a 2.5 percent increase when it prepared the 2006-07 budget.

This gap, along with revenue miscalculations and overspending in other accounts, fueled a $1.7 million deficit. The controversy over the deficit and other financial practices led to the resignations of Superintendent Mary Jo O'Connor and Finance Director Richard Paulson in the summer of 2007.

Hart, the district's human resources director, said she looked at records of teacher advancement, probationary employment and tuition reimbursement to develop her cost estimate for the new salary schedule in the 2007-08 fiscal year.

In the past, an average of 20 teachers earned advanced degrees each year and moved into higher salary brackets under the old, experience-based salary scales, she said.

The district also had about 20 new teachers on probation who could be expected to earn raises.

Hart said she added those figures together, then added another 25 to 30 teachers to come up with an estimate that 70 teachers would climb into higher salary brackets -- at a cost of $350,000.

''That was just our best estimate,'' she said.

But because 218 teachers actually moved up, the cost is likely to be about $854,000, according to a Press Herald analysis of salary records that Hart said was accurate. That figure could have been even higher were it not for $726,063 in federal grants, which fully or partially funded the salaries of 20 of the teachers who moved into higher salary brackets.

About $73,000 in additional grant funds was allocated to cover the cost of salary bracket increases for those 20 teachers, according to figures provided by Hart.

The district's finance office is still calculating final salary costs for the 2007-08 year.

Hart said she also looked at the number of college courses the district had paid for through tuition reimbursement to get an estimate of how many continuing-education credits teachers had accumulated.

What she didn't know, she said, was that many teachers had taken courses at their own expense and not applied for tuition reimbursement, so they had accumulated more credits than she realized.

The district previously had reimbursed teachers for up to two courses a year, at a rate up to the cost of tuition for a three-credit, graduate-level course at the University of New England, currently about $1,300.

But the contract increased the number of courses eligible for reimbursement to three a year, rather than two. In addition to this increase, the contract also allowed union members to be reimbursed for college courses taken as far back as 2001.

These increases contributed to significant overspending in the district's tuition reimbursement accounts. The district allocated $490,750 for this expense for the 2006-07 and 2007-08 years, but actual spending was $716,588, according to district budget records.

NEGOTIATION ROLES DISPUTED

It's unclear how closely the projected salary costs were examined when the contract was negotiated in 2006 by a committee of union leaders, district administrators and School Committee members.

Hart, the human resources director, was a member of the negotiating committee, along with Whynot-Vickers, who was then assistant superintendent for elementary education. The administration was also represented by then-Superintendent O'Connor, then-Finance Director Paulson, and then-School Committee members Radtke and Benjamin Meiklejohn.

O'Connor and Whynot-Vickers offered conflicting accounts of their roles in negotiations.

O'Connor said she was ''at the table'' in a number of negotiating sessions. She said she also attended executive sessions with other administrators and the School Committee to keep committee members informed of progress in the talks.

During those sessions, she said, board members asked about the cost of the contract, but she did not respond directly herself because Hart was the lead negotiator and had prepared the cost estimates.

''Those questions never came to me,'' O'Connor said. ''They always went to Joline.''

O'Connor said she had no reason to be concerned about the financial impact ''because I was given assurances'' by Hart about the projected costs.

Paulson also said the cost estimates were prepared by Hart.

O'Connor said Whynot-Vickers represented her in many of the negotiating sessions and was, along with Radtke, instrumental in coming up with the new salary schedule.

Whynot-Vickers disputes that account of her role in negotiations.

She said she was in charge of elementary education programs at the time, and was brought into negotiations chiefly to address topics that might affect operations at the lower grade levels.

Whynot-Vickers said the salary schedule came up late in the bargaining, and because she had no particular expertise in teacher pay, she had little involvement in those discussions.

''I didn't drive things,'' she said. ''I didn't put anything on the table to negotiate.''

Radtke said he proposed the new salary scale because he wanted a system that de-emphasized years of experience and encouraged continuing education.

Whynot-Vickers said administrators weren't prepared for the number of teachers who sought credit for salary bracket increases.

''We had no way of knowing how quickly this might ramp up,'' she said. ''We didn't anticipate we'd see an explosion of activity.''

But Deniso, the Portland High School math teacher who received a 24 percent salary jump last year, finds it hard to believe that district officials would be surprised.

''As soon as it passed, the conversations that teachers had were that we were going to tap into this opportunity,'' he said. ''If it surprised the district, I can't speak for that. It didn't surprise teachers that we were going to do this.''

One former School Committee member, Stephen Spring, said that when he was on the school board, he supported a new pay system for teachers but was concerned about the potential cost of the new contract.

He said he asked the committee to consider setting a cap on salary spending.

But the idea was rejected, he said, because the committee was unwilling to challenge the administration, which strongly supported the concept behind the new salary schedule.

''A number of people mistakenly viewed their School Committee positions as being employees of the superintendent,'' said Spring, who now lives in Austin, Texas, and works for that city's school system.

''That was my experience on the board for those few years, and it was quite frustrating.''

Maine law requires that school boards set policies and rules and ensure that they are carried out by the superintendent. The superintendent ''shall perform duties as the school board or school building committee direct,'' the law says.

CONCEPT OF CONTRACT DEFENDED

The present School Committee chairman, John Coyne, said he attended one contract negotiating session and was not directly involved in developing the new salary scale.

He said he didn't know until he was told by a Press Herald/Telegram reporter that some union members got raises ranging from 20 to 53 percent. Coyne, who plans to run for City Council in the fall, said a raise of that size ''in any world would have to be questioned as to why somebody was awarded that amount.''

The original contract was negotiated in the summer and fall of 2006 and adopted by the School Committee in November of that year. Coyne described it as a ''new product'' with defects that had to be fixed.

He said the committee and the union were able to correct the defects by negotiating amendments in the contract this year to bring salary spending under control.

At the School Committee's request, talks to change the contract began in February and accelerated in May and June, when the union and committee held several lengthy bargaining sessions.

Union members approved the amendments by a vote of 448-27 on June 19, and the nine-member School Committee accepted them unanimously on June 25.

Under the amendments, fewer teachers will qualify for salary bracket increases each year because of new limits on eligibility, tuition reimbursement and the guidelines for obtaining continuing education credits.

In return for these and other concessions, the union gained a two-year extension of the contract -- to the end of August 2011 -- and increases in pay differentials for coaching and other extracurricular activities.

The union also agreed to a cap on spending for raises into higher salary brackets at $1.3 million annually in fiscal years 2010 and 2011, and to freeze the base figure on which all salary brackets and steps are calculated for that same period.

For the 2009 fiscal year, which began on July 1, the district expects total spending on salaries for teachers and other union members to increase by $2.1 million, or 5.6 percent.

That includes $400,000 to cover a 1 percent raise on the base; $800,000 for experience-based step increases within salary brackets; and $920,000 for raises into higher salary brackets.

Based on a survey of union members, the district expects 212 teachers will move into a higher salary bracket in this fiscal year, earning an average increase of $4,340.

Individually, however, some teachers could earn salary increases of more than $7,000, which would translate into raises of 10 percent or more, depending on the salary brackets.

The budget also includes $300,000 for tuition reimbursement.

Administrators say they are confident that spending will not exceed their projections because the contract amendments approved in June make salary and tuition expenses more predictable.

Administrators and union leaders agree that contract costs should have been more manageable. But they say they are committed to the concept of raising teacher pay and rewarding those who pursue lifelong learning as a model for their students.

Casasa, the union president, said the amended contract is designed to provide what members consider an appropriate salary for a professional job.

''We've tried to do it in a way that preserves what we think of as two key elements of the plan: that teachers should be professionally paid, and that teacher learning is the best predictor of student learning,'' she said.

Staff Writer Kevin Wack contributed to this story.

Staff Writer Dieter Bradbury can be contacted at 791-6329 or at:

dbradbury@pressherald.com

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Additional Photos

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Staff Photo by John Ewing: 20070626 Wednesday, June 25, 2008...Portland School Committee meeting at Casco Bay High School. School superintendant Jeanne Whynot-Vickers listens to discussion during the meeting.

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Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Friday, July 11, 2008: Portland High School math teacher Daniel Deniso. Deniso earned a significant salary increase under the new contract between the teachers' union and the Portland School Committee by taking a number of courses at the University of Southern Maine.

Jack Milton

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Staff Photo by Gordon Chibroski, Tuesday, November 9, 2004: Jonathan Radtke, Chairman of the Portland School Comittee, speaks in behalf of the efforts of the school committee before they voted unanimously to approve the teachers contract with the Portland Education Association.

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