Some ask if educators are sharing the pain

Saturday,  August 15, 2009 8:42 PM By Jim Siegel and Catherine Candisky from the Columbus Ohio Dispatch

As scores of Ohioans are seeing their paychecks frozen, cut or taken away, pressure is mounting on teachers unions and school administrators who continue enjoying healthy raises to share in the sacrifice.

 While 60 percent of schools are getting a cut in state aid over the next two years, and the rest will see annual increases of less than 1 percent, pay raises for teachers top 5 percent in some districts once all the automatic pay bumps are included.

In light of state workers and many other government-paid employees already taking concessions, such raises are getting the attention of weary taxpayers in many school districts, particularly those asking voters to approve higher taxes.

State Superintendent Deborah Delisle told The Dispatch that it’s time for “a reality check in every single community to see what we are able to sustain.”

“Communities will always look to see if sacrifice across the community is equal,” she said. “If people are feeling the pinch and they don’t see community employees feeling the pinch, there is a disconnect.”

A key fact that many taxpayers don’t realize: With all their pay increases for experience or academic training, most Ohio teachers would get a raise even if they took a contractual salary freeze.

In Worthington, where the district is headed to the ballot again in November, John Herrington and his organization, Educate Worthington, are helping lead a growing debate about not only whether teachers should take pay concessions in the short term, but if the district’s salary structure is sustainable in the future.

It is not, Herrington argues.  “People deserve raises, but they should be more in line with what the community is making,” he said, noting that potential cuts proposed by the school board if the levy fails do not include salaries.

“You see very little dealing with the adults in the situation. It hits the kids.”

Some school employees already have taken action. South-Western administrators and teachers are taking no base pay increases, nor are those in Groveport Madison, Grandview Heights and Canal Winchester, which has the lowest pay scale in Franklin County.

Canal Winchester Superintendent Kim Miller-Smith said wages were frozen last spring just weeks before the district asked voters for the fifth time to approve a tax hike.

“How could any of us take raises when we were going to have to lay off 27 people?” she said.

“It was a show of cooperation among everybody that we need to take care of funding our schools first and then we can come back and deal with contracts.”

The levy passed.

Like the state superintendent, Gov. Ted Strickland does not want to interfere with local contract negotiations but agrees that cutbacks must be shared.

“I think it’s appropriate for all of us to participate in sacrifices that will get us through these times,” he said.

Teachers unions say times are tough for everyone, including educators.

“Teachers are not getting pay raises, and some districts delayed negotiations pending the outcome of the state budget,” said William Leibensperger, vice president of the Ohio Education Association.

He cautioned against short-changing teachers.

“There is an undeniable correlation between teacher salaries and resources given to teachers and student achievement,” he said.

Westerville school leaders have been hearing calls for concessions as they prepare to ask for an additional 7.97 mills in November. Administrators already have agreed to a pay freeze, and contract negotiations with teachers are ongoing.

“(Administrators) stepped up to the plate, and we hope the teachers will follow,” said Westerville Assistant Superintendent Christopher Wanner. “With what is going on with the economy and what people have been through, I think it’s very difficult to look at any sizable increase.”

A Dispatch analysis of contracts last school year found that raises for teachers in nearly every Franklin County district would average 5.9 percent to 8.8 percent per year over their first 10 years on the job, thanks to automatic step increases and base salary hikes.

New teachers in Bexley, Dublin, Gahanna-Jefferson, Grandview Heights, Hamilton, Hilliard and Worthington could double their salaries in about 10 years.

Worthington teachers get automatic step increases for experience in 20 of their first 29 years of employment, at 1 to 5 percent each, plus another six pay bumps as they work toward a master’s degree and beyond (Ohio requires teachers to have a master’s degree by the end of their 12th year). So the 2.85 percent increase in the contract actually averages about 5 percent per teacher.

Meanwhile, the average wage and salary increase for nongovernment employees in the 12-month period ending in June was 1.8 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Raises in 2010 are not expected to top 2 percent, according to federal estimates.

Thomas Ash of the Buckeye Association of School Administrators said step increases help districts retain their best and most experienced teachers. But he sees no logic in the fact that most contracts provide pay steps for the first 11 years or more.

“Is somebody going to tell me that a teacher is better after 11 years than a teacher was after five? I’ve never seen any research to prove that,” he said.

In Worthington and many other districts, it is doubtful that districts can sustain significant pay raises.

State funding for daily school operations was cut by 0.24 percent for both this year and next. There is little hope that things will improve in the state budget two years from now without another federal stimulus package or significant tax increase.

“To commit yourself to a new contract with increases, basically you are committing yourself to a local tax increase, because money is not coming from the state to cover that,” said Sen. Gary Cates, R-West Chester, who heads the Senate Education Committee. “School boards run a great risk of alienating the public if they continue to give out salary and benefit increases in these times.”

David Bressman, president of the Worthington Board of Education, said if teachers agreed to give back their raises, as administrators already have done, it would help pass an incremental levy in November. Voters in May crushed a larger 7.4-mill issue by 18 percentage points.

“A lot of folks who are on the fence have told me either privately or publicly, that if they see some action by the teachers and the administrators they would be strongly inclined to support the November levy,” he said.

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