When one in five Duluth teachers writes and tells me to pay attention, I pay attention. I wrote personal letters to the first thirty teachers who wrote to me about the frustrating pace of our contract negotiations but the recent tidal wave of postcards is simply beyond my ability to respond individually. I apologize for this form letter but as most of the comments directed at me seem to come from things Ive read in the "Goldenrod" I think this one letter can address most of them.
If I was a teacher and I believed everything in the DFT newsletter I would be extremely angry. There is nothing more infuriating than to be treated dismissively and I know that many of our teachers feel that this is how they have been treated. Thats not how I feel. Im creative, energetic, idealistic. I tried to teach and I couldnt cut it! I know what it takes to teach. I would love to debate anyone on our School Board or in our Administration who has a low regard for teachers. The public, and certainly most of the parents of your students would cheer me on. If you conclude that this district does not value you I will understand should you choose to make that point in the strongest way you can.
Ive enclosed a copy of a flyer that was sent to all teachers because so many of you have referred to it in your comments to me. I take issue with much of this information starting with the "cost of living" which youve been told has surged ahead of your pay. I contacted The Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics and told them how much a starting teacher made in 1972 and how much a teacher on the top of the salary schedule makes today. I counted longevity pay. They calculated that our teacher salaries have increased by an annual average of 7.4 percent. That does not include this years pay increase because the contract has not been settled yet. I then asked the Bureau what the average annual cost of living was over the same period of time. I was told it was 5.5 percent.
The flyer stated that the starting salary for a beginning teacher was 258th out of 350 school districts. This is probably true but assigning blame for this is tricky. When I was a teacher in 1987 I signed up to help negotiate the contract. It was my impression then, and still is, that new teachers are not a high priority of the more senior teachers who negotiate the contract. Ive been told that most school districts allow their teachers to divvy up new settlements and assign new money to the salary grid. I gather that this has been our practice in the past as well. If the School Board can be blamed for anything, its for not insisting that new teachers be given greater consideration when the spoils are divided.
The flyer said that Duluths insurance increases are less than the state average. Perhaps this is true but our premiums have gone up over 32% in the last three years and show no sign of slowing down. By bidding out insurance we could probably get a better and less expensive package. Our current carrier Blue Cross wrote and told us that they no longer sell the "J plan" which we are presently tied to because it is antiquated. I have read newsletters that say that our teachers have "sacrificed" salary for their insurance. This is true. Whether its been worth the sacrifice or not is debatable. A new insurance package would likely be as good or better and leave more money for salary. It appears to me that having extolled the virtues of this package for so long, the DFT is having a hard time explaining that its time to change.
There have been many comparisons made between the salaries of Duluth teachers and other districts, particularly rich suburban districts. Often these comparisons omit some very generous benefits which are found in the Duluth contract. For instance, longevity is subtracted even though its hard to ignore a $2,200 increase in pay for teachers in their 25th year. Also, the teachers flyer makes no mention of "severance." Presently, senior teachers who retire with salaries close to $50,000 can claim around $70,000 severance.
Im aware of only four possible ways to come up with the additional money the DFT negotiators want.
1st. The school board could renege on a promise to the voters in the last election. We could raise taxes despite a unanimous promise not to do so. This promise came about because there was so much fear that the referendum would be voted down if it entailed an increase in taxes. Elected officials catch hell for breaking faith with the public. No Board member wants to be called a liar.
2nd. We could cut current programs. I dont like this idea. A lot of people have told me that weve already made too many program cuts. Most people agree that cuts should be made away from the schools. I myself have campaigned on this platform. Perhaps we could trim the Business Dept. I once thought this was a good idea however, I discovered that we lost millions of dollars due to mismanagement the last time we slashed Business. After our Business Office was put back together it found 1.9 million dollars in savings which, incidentally, are all being applied to the settlement we are currently offering.
3rd. We could save about a million dollars a year if we closed one high school. However, after the Central ruckus a few years ago I would be reluctant to advocate this.
The fourth option is to dip into the reserve. This would be stupid! It would only benefit teachers who retire in the next year or two and short change teachers in the long run. Its really very simple. We have a 10 percent reserve which equals about 10 million dollars. In an emergency it would get us through one month. Sitting in banks and bonds, as it does now, it earns interest. Right now its generating half a million dollars in interest a year which goes to our operating expenses ( meaning salaries ). A few years ago we borrowed so much to cover our debts that we spent millions of dollars on interest. Our teachers lost all that income to bankers and bondholders.
We have good reason to husband our resources. First, Duluths birth rate dropped 20% from 1990 to 1995. Smaller enrollments will be entering our schools starting next year. Second, new state welfare laws have driven some of our most vulnerable families out of town to seek employment. Third, we still have a dropout rate of about 20%.
The current School Board is composed of nine people a majority of whom, including the Chair, have never negotiated a contract before. We are faced with financial problems which would confound Solomon. If were moving slowly in the contract negotiations it is because we dont want to be rushed into any mistakes. Those who suggest that our deliberation means we do not value teachers are simply wrong. This is the most teacher friendly School Board in recent history.