Competing against ourselves

A funny thought occured to me which I wanted to share. Funny, strange, not funny, ha-ha.

The last couple of weeks, I've had several articles on the Acton teacher contract renewals. I started off with a description of the new contract. See

Then I went into the process violation by the School Committee. The School Commitee promised to allow for public input prior to approving the new three-year teacher's agreement and reneged. See

Then I gave just one example of missing information that could have been important to know prior to a vote on a new agreement. My guess is that several School Committee members were unaware that this information was missing, but they evidently didn't care since not one objected to a delay in the vote. See There are probably more examples that could be shown, but what's the point--the School Committee approved the contract so nothing can be done for three years.

The last article in this series was about how the state has hurt the cities and towns by making it impossible to negotiate new union contracts for local taxpayers' benefit. See

This article will show another example of the state's interference in the "free market" of hiring teachers which has increased local taxpayers' costs.


For a background on teacher salaries, see This article has been disputed by the school, which has said that the extra pay for our highest-paid teachers is not due to bonuses but mostly due to extra hours worked, like coaching, summer school, being a department chair, etc.

The salary summary for school and municipal employees is here:

So we hire these teachers and we give them robust annual salary increases, plus plenty of opportunities to make more cash. We have 15 or 20 teachers who are earning over $100,000 a year, with those numbers set to rise in the coming years. I think that last link showed something like 45 school employees (some teachers, some administrators) making over $100,000 a year and 60 mostly teachers making $90,000-$100,000 a year. Ouch. Not bad pay for a nine-month school year.


One of the arguments that the teacher's union makes in negotiations is that we need to keep up with the Jones'. They like to think that we are going to lose good teachers to the Westons, Sudburys, Lincolns, and Concords because these towns pay more than Acton. Of course, we have hundreds of teacher applicants for every open position from every other town that pays less, but the thought of losing "a good teacher" is worth overpaying everyone, I guess. At least that's how our School Committee sees it. What else explains average raises of 4% a year or more for the next four years during a recession?

When someone moves from one MA school district to another, guess what? They are still in the state's teacher pension system. They don't lose anything by switching districts if they stay in-state.

In the private sector, if you leave a company, you start over with a new one. Yes, you might get an increase in salary, but you have to reset your vacation time, you lose seniority, and your "vesting" starts over from scratch. And, of course, pensions in the private sector are being eliminated or scaled back, replaced by mostly self-funded 401Ks.

So the private sector does not have job security, does not have guaranteed pension payouts, and workers can feel stuck at a company because leaving might cost them some of their accrued benefits.

But Massachusetts public-school teachers can move and not lose retirement pension vesting or future benefits. Therefore the state system makes it easier for them to leave, not harder. Therefore one reason for our high compensation levels is state bureaucracy (an unintended consequence, no doubt.)

The reality then is that teachers who want to go to higher-paying districts have little to stop them. Trying to compete in salary is a losing proposition for Acton taxpayers. We are never going to pay as much as towns with twice or three-times our disposable income. So why try to compete?

This is almost a classic "lose-lose" for taxpayers. Higher and higher salaries will never be enough to keep top teachers who want more. They can move to other higher-paying districts too easily. In essence, our generous raises are like competing against ourselves, and the escalation has to stop.

Instead, let's embrace our strengths and keep salary increases to a more modest, affordable level for our taxpayers.

Of course, our School Committee has taken the exact opposite approach. It now gives out "longevity" bonuses to keep our highest-paid teachers on the job longer (rather than encouraging them to retire early to save money) and the recent contract gave extra pay to the highest "steps." So much for sound long-term fiscal strategy.

So I propose a different paradigm. Here it is.


Dear Prospective Acton Teacher:

Acton is a fine school system with great students and a professionally run central administration. As a large regional school district, we offer a great work environment, lots of different class levels to choose from, and a highly motivated student body. Our students consistently test well on all standardized tests. If you are a "teacher's teacher" then you would thrive in this environment. You can have a "private school" feel at a public school's salary and benefits.

We like to hire great teachers early, when they are most enthusiastic and energetic. We have a very competitive application process and there is a three-year probation period. Raises will be substantial to quickly bring you up to a fair salary with generous benefits. Compared to our peers, brand new teachers in years one through twenty will be well compensated.

Once you have settled in, our compensation increases will be much more modest. Expect 0-1% annual increases in pay. We won't pay as much as wealthier districts like Weston, Lincoln, or Concord. If you wish to advance your career financially, and you can get one of those coveted positions, go for it! If you are a great teacher, our Superintendent of Schools will happily write a strong recommendation for anyone who wishes to move on.

This will free up a "high salary" slot and allow us to hire new, enthusiastic teachers to bring some fresh faces to AB. In fact, the opening you are applying for now is probably one of those positions.

If you choose to stay with us, we welcome that too, of course. But Acton is not a wealthy town. Our taxpayers simply cannot afford to pay one teacher $110,000 or $120,000 a year when we can get two really good teachers at the same price. Simply put, Actonians cannot afford to have the highest tax burden in our peer group. It is forcing retirees to leave the town, it is making it hard for current parents to afford to live here, and it simply isn't necessary to attract a great workforce.

We hope your love of teaching and a fair salary and benefit package will make you want to stay with us long-term, even through retirement. But don't expect our salary scale to keep up with the most highly paid school districts in the state.

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competing against ourselves

Well stated, and accurate.

Michele Holland