Delivering a reality check

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Back in October, a nasty teacher union v. school district battle came to a decision point in the Wrentham-Norfolk-Plainville area. Months had passed with the local union refusing to allow teachers to perform basic duties (writing letters of recommendation, providing parents access to updates online, etc.). As the Globe’s Brian McGrory noted, the unions were sore that the school committee didn’t want to agree to a new contract that would have given them a 28 percent raise over three years.

Anyone who has been around the block in education knows the clout of the teachers unions and can easily twist his fingers in knots counting the obstacles and “actions” some local unions are willing to use to persuade school committees to come to terms.

Rita Savard of the Lowell Sun has been reporting on the Chelmsford Public School district. She notes that 10 days ago teachers were going to refuse to attend “a districtwide half-day of school” dedicated to professional development.

The Chelmsford teachers union has employed many of the same tactics seen in the King Phillip Regional High School (Wrentham-Norfolk-Plainville) fight, where teachers shut down the online communication system for parents and students, and refused to complete such things as letters of recommendation. (Tough time to do that sort of thing.)

Newspapers are increasingly reporting on such union tactics because of the tight fiscal climate and the impending liabilities built up over years related to pensions and health care benefits. In addition, there is a fissure opening in the Democratic Party itself, with younger elements and some large donors to the party questioning its longtime unquestioned support for the teachers unions. Add to that a new generation of union members, and positions are shifting around.

The Sun has been paying quite a bit of attention to the ongoing battle between Chelmsford teachers and their local school committee, and their pieces just underscore how over-the-top the union has gotten.

Chelmsford’s 400 unionized school teachers have been working without a contract for 16 months, but at least they’ve been working.

Tell that to the 3,200 Massachusetts teachers who have lost jobs over the past three years. …

Chelmsford’s union teachers haven’t missed a paycheck over these past 16 months. They are way ahead of the Bay State’s 300,000 unemployed who are relying on government aid amid the anxiety that it someday will run out.

Nor have Chelmsford’s teachers missed increases to their salaries.

Often reporters miss highlighting the “step increases” negotiated by union representatives. Reporting the nominal increases in contracts misses out on what the Sun called “hidden pay raises for time of service that, when combined with negotiated annual pay raises” can sometimes amount effectively to two or three percentage points beyond that. The Sun notes that:

This year, Chelmsford taxpayers will pay out $700,000 in step increases to 220 teachers even though, once again, no pay raises have been doled out. How did these double whammies get into public contracts in the first place?

With teachers averaging $65,000 a year, it is no wonder many parents in the district are outraged by a 15 percent increase (not including the step increases!). With the impending cuts in state Chapter 70 education aid to localities in the coming budget cycle, the pressure on towns is incresaing to contain cost escalators within the largest part of their budgets–schools.

And with the pressure likely to continue well into fiscal year 2013 (July 2012-June 2013), this is an issue that is going to be with us for some time.