Schools underestimate teacher salary increases in AEA contract renewal

The Acton-Boxborough Regional School Committee (SC), in its haste to approve a new three-year teacher's union agreement (for 2015-17) and despite a promise to allow for meaningful public input prior to its vote, approved a new contract with financial documentation that appears to underestimate the future salary cost of teachers.

Acton Forum has not received an answer as to the extent of this oversight, but we estimate it could be $1,000,000 over the four-year contract period ($100,000 a year, cumulatively).

This was one reason why Acton Forum (AF) editors Allen Nitschelm and Charlie Kadlec asked for (and received a promise to have) a delay in the final vote, so that members of the public could ask questions about the proposal before it is approved. The promise made to the AF editors was broken during this contract renewal process. (See http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/ab-school-committee-violates-poli...).

We are not claiming that this lack of information was meant to be misleading. It is possible that in the insular world of contract negotiations, members of the School Committee felt that only information directly related to the contract (in their mind) should be highlighted.

But members of the public have a different yardstick. They want to know what all this really means. In the next few years, how much will individual teacher salaries be increasing? That is a measure that we can all understand and relate to. Yet that information was not available before the vote, yet the SC voted anyway. This is no way to make decisions as important as this, which is why we pushed for a more transparent process in the first place.

THE PROCESS

The Acton Education Association (AEA), the union for teachers, votes first to approve the negotiated agreement between the School Committee's Negotiations Subcommittee (NSC) and the teachers' negotiators. Only after the AEA membership approves the draft agreement does the full SC vote on it. But because prior years did not give the public time to weigh in on the agreement before the vote (which binds the town's taxpayers to the agreement with no ability to rescind), Nitschelm and Kadlec last year asked for a vote delay and a posting of contract information prior to the SC vote to ratify any new agreement. The SC agreed to such a process on June 14, 2013. This was about nine months after negotiations began, with Nitschelm and Kadlec thinking a final agreement was pending. It took the NSC almost another year to finalize the AEA contract.

According to the new process agreed to by the SC last year, they would wait at least two days after the AEA contract approval to hold a meeting to discuss and approve the new AEA contract. Information about the agreement would be posted online for public review in advance. This was so "the public will then have time to review the information and provide comment at the public meeting," according to the SC promise.

But when the contract negotiations were completed this year, the SC did not follow such a process. Instead, they scheduled a vote to ratify the contract prior to the AEA's vote to approve it, did not post information, and repeatedly declined to delay their vote despite written and verbal requests to do so from AF's Nitschelm, who attended the May 22 SC meeting.

Despite acknowledging the commitment to a new process in a recent email, SC Chair Maria Neyland said "I did not receive word that the AEA ratified the agreement until approximately 5:15pm on May 22, there was just not enough time to get the information posted before our meeting that evening."

Acton Town Manager Steve Ledoux, who was on vacation during the week when this vote took place, did not attend the meeting. State law gives the Town Manager a seat and vote on the teacher's union contract. Last time the teacher's union contract was approved, Ledoux cast the only vote against ratification.

The School Committee meeting of May 22, 2014, can be seen on Acton TV at http://actontv.org/on-demand/post-video/school-committee-mtg-5-22-14mp4-.... The AEA contract approval portion of the meeting starts at 12:30 on the video timeline.

The AEA contract information was "brought to the meeting," according to the agenda. It was put on the table just prior to the start of the meeting and a brief presentation was given outlining the contract terms and a financial summary of the costs.

It is obvious if you watch the meeting that all the members of the SC had already made up their minds and had all the information they thought they needed to vote. They don't want or think they needed public input.

But is it possible that members of the public have something to contribute? Perhaps a "reality check" by taxpayers not involved in the negotiations should be allowed prior to a three-year commitment on a new contract? And the fact that contracts continue in effect after they expire makes entering into a new one even more dangerous. No concessions given to the teachers can ever be taken back without their future agreement, so contract terms need to be reviewed very carefully.

For the details on the new contract, see http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/ab-school-committee-approves-new-....

Despite protestations, the SC voted to approve the new AEA contract. But AF has since learned that the financial summary information presented at the meeting and handed out to the public was incomplete and misleading, as it under-reported the "increases" that teachers would receive in the coming years.

MISSING OR MISLEADING INFORMATION

After the meeting, Acton Forum asked the schools if "lane" increases were included in the "increases" listed under the financial summary handed out to the public on May 22, 2014. The contract was approved that night by the SC so the answer is academic at this point. The handout is shown as the graphic here: http://actonforum.com/sites/default/files/AEA_Scan.pdf.

The written materials specified that increases were being given on various "steps," including the "supermax" bonus, and COLAs (Cost of Living Allowances). There was no mention of "lane" increases. Was this just an oversight? Often "steps and lanes" are spoken about in the same sentence.

"Steps" are the annual increases in pay, given for an additional year of service. "Lanes" are for educational or other training which also give permanent increases. For example, teachers hired with a bachelor's degree are expected to continue taking courses or training to move up to a Master's degree or equivalent. This would advance a couple of "lanes" with a permanent increase in the base salary. Lane increases appear to give permanent 2-5% salary increases. There are seven lanes in the salary chart.

We were told several days later that "lane" increases were not included because lanes were not specifically addressed in the new contract.

"The lanes are not shown as part of the increase, as there is no change to the contract for lanes. When you add in the turnover for retirement, the positions that we cut, lane changes, etc., you will see that the FY '14 to FY '15 teaching salaries is actually decreased -0.25% from
FY '14 $32,025,073 to FY '15 $31,945,613," said Marie Altieri, the Director of Personnel.

This argument is not new. "Line item" costs have been used by the schools in the past to hide individual salary increases. If many teachers retire one year, or if we reduce positions due to regionalization, we can have a salary line increase much more slowly (or in this case, decrease) when individual raises are substantial.

Nitschelm asked at the SC meeting on May 22 what the individual salary range increases were, but was told that information was not available. I guess that's another point the members of the SC don't need to know prior to their unanimous vote to approve a new three-year union contract.

The schools claimed that the information handed to the public did not need to include "lane" increases because the contract did not explicitly change the lane figures. However, one would presume COLA increases would affect all figures in the compensation chart, which would mean that lane changes would be increased as well.

Also, total compensation increases should be known as part of any negotiated contract. Say "health insurance" costs were going up some huge amount. Surely that would be factored in to salary increases. Lane changes are increases in compensation that are part of base salaries, so changes to lanes affect all other areas of compensation. (If, say, every teacher were expected to have a lane increase next year, which could mean salary increases up to 5% for that alone, then additional COLA increases might be eliminated that year during negotiations as part of the overall compensation picture.)

We have not yet heard back what these lane change increases could be in the coming years, but prior information indicates they may total around $80,000 - $100,000 a year in permanent salary increases. Over the four years, this could represent around $1,000,000 in increased spending in just those four years ($100,00 the first year, $200,000 the second, etc.)

For the chart from 2011-2012 showing how lane increases work, see http://ab.mec.edu/hr/hrpdf/AEA-2012-2013-salary-scale.pdf.

What other questions or comments might have been made had the public been given time to review the contract and financial details?

POINT PROVEN

This illustrates exactly why the public should be given the chance to review, analyze, ask questions, and make comments prior to the SC's vote to approve proposed union contracts.

As you may be able to tell based on recent articles on this subject, teacher compensation issues are quite complicated. There are literally hundreds of different ways that teachers can earn money or extra pay. Previous increases that continue evidently don't have to be disclosed because they are "not new," yet they are annual increases nonetheless, and they should be factored in to proposed new increases because the whole compensation package should be evaluated when deciding on new contracts. Right?

The newly fully regionalized School Committee has broken its promise to have a more open and transparent AEA contract renewal process and future Acton taxpayers will be worse off because of it.

Well, we already are.

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