Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Couple Quick Thoughts on the School Budget

(Editor's Note: I am in my second year as a teacher at Westbrook High School, and the pilot program I'm involved with is once again on the chopping block. That's not what this post is about, though. Instead, it's my take on a couple issues that I have mulled over since we first learned about the particulars of this tough budget season back in December. And now that those specifics have been made public, here's my two-cents.)

Scrap the nearly $1 million in pay raises.

In the two most recent news articles about the school's budget quandary (
here and here), most of the attention has been placed on the number of jobs cut and the amount of state and federal aid dollars that won't be coming our way. In both pieces, though, there's also a key paragraph, even though it has the tone of a throwaway passage.*

That paragraph is about how almost half of the $2.2 million budget deficit in the FY '12-'13 budget is due to pay raises for school district employees. Mindful of the conflict of interest I have in arguing against the pay raises within the context of job cuts and additions, I'm going to stay away from that debate and instead look at the pay raises within the context of rational economics and the need to raise taxes in order to fund at least some of the pay increases.

The pay raises should be extracted from the budget because they are not rational given the tough job market, both within and without the education sector; Westbrook's classroom teachers are well-off, at least relative to the population from whom we are looking for a tax increase; and because the culminating school of our district, Westbrook High School, is performing at a below-average level.

According to the Maine Department of Education, Westbrook High School's students in 2011
scored below the state average in all four of the categories (mathematics, reading, science, and writing) of the SAT,** which is used by Augusta as a common assessment for high schools across the state. Moreover, our high school's graduation rate in 2009-2010 (the most recent public information available) was about 80%, which was a couple points below the state average. And our high school's dropout rate in 2009-2010 was about 5% (see grad link above), or roughly a point above the state average.

These are three important criteria that assess not only a school but a district, and we are not even meeting state averages in any of them. Continuing to clutch to this pay raise will only continue to give fuel to public education's critics who complain our system rewards mediocrity, except in our case the argument could actually be made that we aren't even achieving mediocrity in return for said reward.

Another reason the pay raise should be scrapped is because the median salary for a classroom teacher in Westbrook is already more than what the median household earns in Westbrook. This is a significant point, because it is of course these households that will pay more taxes in order to fund at least some of our pay raises.

According to the conservative think tank Maine Heritage Policy Center's online database of public institutions' spending,
the median salary for Westbrook's classroom teachers was $47,010 in 2009. As the 2010 U.S. Census figures confirm, that median wage for an individual teacher is slightly greater than what the median household in Westbrook earns ($46,810). This data is even more relevant when you consider our teaching wages are for about 40 weeks of labor over the course of a school year, or roughly 20-30% fewer weeks of labor than most working taxpayers in Westbrook work in a salary year.

Naturally, the argument for why Westbrook residents' taxes shouldn't be raised in order to fund administrators' pay increases is even stronger when you consider the median salary among Westbrook's administrators in 2009 ($83,761) outstrips the earning power of the median household in Westbrook by an even greater ratio than that of the median-earning classroom teacher in Westbrook.

Finally, the nearly $1 million in pay raises should be scrapped because they are not rational given the contraction and unique pecularities of the education labor market.

Obviously, I'm not a Human Resources expert (
nor did I stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night), but I figure pay raises are utilized for a couple reasons: As a reward for a job well done and as a tool for the retainment of valuable workers. I've already addressed why we should not get a pay raise for the former reason above, so I'll address why pay raises don't make rational economic sense within the context of the second point of staff retainment.

Even just a cursory glance at the daily headlines would give you the accurate perspective that the job market in education is stagnant. In fact, if there's any movement in the labor market, it's the contraction of jobs available, not the expansion of job opportunities. So why give pay raises to retain employees, when there's nowhere else to go? And why give pay raises to retain your most veteran staffers, when there is little chance they will trade the (job) security blanket of seniority at their current school district for the lack of a (job) security blanket resulting from the loss of their seniority when they shift to a new job?

The job markets for almost all sectors right now are management-friendly, yet these pay increases would give you the impression from a purely rational perspective that it is labor who has the multitude of options. Pundits arguing for how and why governments and public institutions should be run like businesses often overestimate how feasible such an approach would be. But pay raises is an area in which there could be an overlap between the public and private sectors.

These arguments probably give the impression that my idea of a good school employee is a poor one. That's not true. It's just that pay raises for school staff should be taken on a case-by-case and year-by-year basis, instead of being viewed as an entitlement captured by
an unwritten amendment to the Natural Rights portion of the Maine Constitution. Put simply, this is not the case nor the year for Westbrook's school employees to be awarded nearly $1 million in pay raises. Our culminating school is performing at a below-average level, our average staffers are already earning more than the average taxpaying household in Westbrook, and a pay raise is a failure to recognize the scarcity of options for us teachers to relocate elsewhere if we are discontented by the lack of a pay raise.

* The reason the pay raise is mentioned in a throwaway manner is because among all the fluidity of the budget, the contractual nature of the pay raises makes it as close to a fixed cost as you're going to find. That's why this issue won't be solved by the School Committee, which is busy enough without provoking a messy fight with the employees' unions only a year after the contract was agreed to. So it will either be resolved by the unions voluntarily re-negotiating the contract (t'aint likely) or it will be solved by taxpayers.

** As the teacher of a brief SAT Prep. Course, I share some of the blame for the relatively low SAT scores. Fortunately, the program was eliminated ruing the last year's budget cycle due to the ineffective nature of the course and the inability to attract a critical mass of students to participate in the course.

Recruit a sponsor for the upper athletic fields.

Whether it was S.D. Warren president George Olmsted
contributing $150,000 in the mid-1960s for the construction of the eponymous field Westbrook High School currently uses or Hannaford's $100,000 donation toward Cape Elizabeth High School's athletic fields in 2006, there is evidence that Westbrook High School could raise revenue by selling the naming rights to its various athletic complexes.

As it stands now, the baseball and softball fields are nameless, but are sometimes referred to as Olmsted more out of happenstance, I think, than out of formal agreement. And the upper fields on which the soccer teams practice and the lacrosse and field hockey teams play their games are currently called just that, the upper fields.

Retain the Olmsted name for the stadium complex, sell the naming rights to the baseball and softball fields either together or separately, and package the upper fields as a complete complex in which varsity-level soccer, field hockey, and lacrosse teams compete. I've always thought the Olympia Sports Park had a nice ring to it, and it also could be a win-win situation for both the school and
the Westbrook-based company Olympia Sports.

Besides increasing revenue, selling naming rights to the upper fields and shifting more events up there could save money in the long run: There would be less annual wear and tear on Olmsted, which would therefore lessen the need for a future, capital-intensive investment in the form of replacing the current field with costly synthetic turf.

- John C.L. Morgan


Anonymous said...

*Standing Ovation*
You just said what MANY Westbrook parents/residents are thinking. SO many Westbrook families are struggling financially. Most of us have not received a pay raise in at least a year or two. Some of us have even had to have a pay decrease to keep our jobs. I know that our families medical insurance has continued to go up in cost while our coverage has gone down. Why is it that in every other job you have to perform in order to keep your job? Why in most jobs does the employer not have to give you a pay raise if they aren't able to? What other profession do you have great medical insurance that costs you very little?
In this great time of need, I agree that the teachers of Westbrook should not be any different than any other profession. It really infuriates people to see our children losing services, losing wonderful teachers etc. It also infuriates parents to see the teachers/administrators continue to have an increased salary when the rest of us are not. I'm not sure what can be done about this. I do know that it has been a hot subject among parents in the community.
Again, Bravo for saying what most of us are thinking!!

A Westbrook parent and taxpayer


These are very open and honest thoughts. Regardless of the test performance, the dropout rate and most importantly the income of the community are important.
It is worth mentioning, that not only there is a shorter work year than average, but each employee gets 20 sick days a year, more than in Portland, for example. Compared to Portland, the salaries are lower, but honestly I don't think either level is sustainable.
Also, we must understand that it's not what every teacher wants. I am sure - and I was a teacher, too - that there are many individuals who agree with this post, but the union has its own agenda. Overall, the union favors longer-tenure teachers and keeps lots of others out of the job. I would love to negotiate my own salary (which would be lower than the contract entitles me to) in order to get a teaching job. I am sure that my experience puts me in a terrible position when I apply for teaching jobs - no one can afford me, while I am willing to work for much less!
After losing the teaching job, my income is down 60%. No I can't justify taxing me to pay an increase to someone who makes 60% more than me. Nor would I demand that myself. I would be happy to work for 40K a year, or even 35K if ever hired as a teacher again. That would be a huge pay raise for me and still below the current median income.
Massive administrative costs are also a problem. They need to be adjusted to reflect the reality and the current job market.

Lou said...

Well said. I have gone without a raise for a couple of years and my wife has gone 3, but that aside it seems ridiculous to lay off teachers and shut down programs so the rest can live fat. I will be voting down any budget that includes teacher raises.

Liz Stamey said...

Well argued, John. Thanks for putting it out there.

matt said...

You make some great points here, this should be an editorial in the PPH or AJ as well.

Anonymous said...

Well said John, I cannot in good conscience vote in favor of a budget that raises taxes on the citizens. I am sure that if people took a hard look at what the city has been spending money on over the past year or so, and what they are discussing spending in the near future, they would be even more upset. It is always easier to pass a tax hike when ("It's for the kids")it is a school budget rather than to buy new equipment or move city hall or whatever. I realize the city has needs, but just like any household budget, expenditures must be prioritized and sometimes we have to go without some of the extras for a time.