Wednesday, March 12, 2014
By Randy Billings firstname.lastname@example.org
PORTLAND - Teachers are in line to receive a 5 percent salary increase next year, but city and school officials hope the teachers union will reopen its contract in an effort to save jobs.
The Portland Public Schools budget eliminates nearly 50 full-time, locally funded positions, while still calling for a 3 percent increase in the schools' portion of the property tax rate.
Such a steep increase in the tax rate, while cutting staff, is generating anxiety on the City Council, which sets the bottom line for school spending. The council will hold a public hearing and vote Monday, which would send the $96.4 million school budget to referendum on May 14.
"I believe there are alternatives," said City Councilor John Anton, chairman of the Finance Committee. "I think management and labor need to come up with a better outcome."
The Finance Committee voted 3-1 Thursday on a budget proposal that ignores $1.3 million in potential cost shifts to the city under Gov. Paul LePage's state budget plan. The school budget also minimizes the potential impact of Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, the charter school that is scheduled to open in Portland this fall. If the school budget strategy is wrong, the district could be forced to make deeper cuts later on, or ask the voters for more money.
The budget would increase the schools' share of the property tax rate from $9.57 to $9.86, adding about $60 a year to the tax bill of a home with an assessed value of $200,000. The city budget, which includes county taxes, is also factored into the property tax rate and is still being deliberated.
Anton cast the sole dissenting vote on the Finance Committee Thursday.
City Councilor David Marshall supported the budget at the Finance Committee level and said Friday he will likely support it on Monday. But he, too, would like teachers and school administrators to find other savings to stave off position cuts that could affect the classroom -- cuts that could be exacerbated if some of the state cost shifts occur.
"It's really important for people, when they talk about keeping cuts out of the classroom, to look at the low-hanging fruit that is not in the classroom," Marshall said. He was referring to provisions that put two teachers union leaders mostly on the city payroll, even though they don't teach.
As part of the current contract, Portland Education Association President Kathleen Casasa and chief negotiator Suzette Olafsen are released from their teaching duties but have 80 percent of their salaries paid for by the district, while the remaining 20 percent is paid by union dues. In 2012, that arrangement cost taxpayers nearly $160,000.
That includes $82,880 for Casasa and $75,350 for Olafsen, who also oversees the district's professional development program to ensure that it conforms with the contract, so teachers can receive raises for their work.
TEACHERS IN LINE FOR RAISES
The school district is talking with three of its four unions to come up with ways to save money through contract changes, rather than position cuts, according to school board Chairman Jaimey Caron.
Much of that effort has been focused on the Portland Education Association, whose more than 600 members are in line for $1.7 million in raises next year.
"By far the biggest opportunity is the money we spend on the teaching staff," Caron said. "They're the largest group and they have relatively high salaries compared to others."
The PEA is currently working under a contract that has been approved by the school board, so it is under no obligation to make concessions, Caron said.
For now, reopening the contract doesn't seem to be an option for the union.
"We're not interested in opening the contract up," Casasa said. "They (the district) have to live up to their agreement in the contract."
Casasa said the raises in next year's budget were a trade-off for other concessions. Teachers agreed to add four days to their calendars, which means they actually had a pay decrease in the first year of their contract, she said.
Step, or longevity, increases were also frozen last year but resumed this year, averaging about $1,300 per teacher, according to information provided by Casasa.
Meanwhile, about 125 teachers have received, or will receive, salary increases for professional development over the last three years, costing the district about $388,000.
Teachers have been vocal in their opposition to the staff cuts included in the budget. More than a dozen testified during the school board's public hearing, and dozens attended the City Council's workshop on the budget last week.
Casasa said the union has presented the district with its own ideas to save money, including moving the adult education program to one of the high schools, rather than spending $180,000 to rent space. Suggestions also include reversing proposed increases in professional and technical services, special ed contracted services, staff travel and the school's contingency fund. All told, the union says the district could save at least $500,000 by revisiting those lines.
School Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk was not available to comment on the union proposals, but he has previously expressed his preference for teacher concessions, since labor accounts for 80 percent of the overall budget.
"We are asking our employee unions to also make an investment in next year's budget, so that we don't have to make additional cuts that would be truly devastating to our students, staff, parents and community," Caulk said in a March news release.
'FIGHTING OVER SCRAPS'
At least one school board member doesn't support asking teachers to give ground on their raises.
Holly Seeliger, who was elected in November, said asking teachers to come to the table in the middle of their contract will not address the bigger problems.
"I just don't see how we can continue fighting over scraps," Seeliger said. "That's not going to fix our massive budget deficit we have. I'm more interested in the larger issues."
In an April 30 blog post, Seeliger put it this way: "The problem is a global austerity agenda that we the people need to work to end. I have spoken with the teacher's union and encouraged them to stand up and join me in events that will call media and local attention to the austerity problem."
Seeliger said in an interview that she has received more than 100 emails from parents saying the city should raise taxes rather than cut education. She is encouraging people to take that message to the council on a personal level.
Anton said he agrees with Seeliger that education needs to be a higher priority both at the state and national levels, but the only tool the city has to generate revenue is property taxes.
While parents may be willing to pay more, Anton said in an interview, other people in the city, especially seniors on fixed incomes, cannot.
"Within the construct I have to work, I cannot support an increase in property taxes to a level she would like to see," Anton said.
Anton noted that contracts with municipal unions are more conservative. Eight city unions are receiving a 1.5 percent pay raise, while police patrolmen are receiving a 1.8 percent raise, according to information provided by the city's human resources department.
Casasa, the union president, also believes the school district should continue to offer a retirement incentive, as it has for nearly a decade. The incentives are intended to produce turnover savings when higher-paid veteran teachers are replaced with younger teachers.
But Caron said it's difficult to say how much the district has been saving through incentives, because the district doesn't know how many teachers would have retired without them.
"The last two years, I have been increasingly skeptical about whether or not it's having the intended effect," Caron said. "The board is wondering whether it's an incentive or more of a bonus-type program."
But Casasa said the math is simple. There are more than 100 teachers eligible for retirement and 30 have already expressed interest in a retirement incentive paid out over four years. Last year the district paid a $20,000 incentive over four years.
Without an incentive, only five teachers say they plan to retire, she said.
Casasa said if a teacher earning $72,000 a year retires and is replaced with a teacher at the district's starting pay of $32,000, then the district could restore 15 positions while also saving between $1 million and $1.5 million a year.
If the position goes unfilled, the savings would be even greater, she said.
"We're trying to be good partners, but we are asking management to be a good partner, too, and live up to the terms of our agreement and work with us in some other way," Casasa said.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: