Thursday, April 23, 2009

We Are Not Alone, Part III

Back in December, I posted an article which made a plea to the members of the Hilliard Education Association (HEA) – the teachers' union – to begin thinking about how to enter a new phase of their relationship with the people of our community. Hilliard has been a fast-growing community for a couple of decades, and we have a long tradition of supporting our schools generously. But growth has slowed with the general economic situation in our country. With this recession, the growth of personal incomes has also fallen. Indeed, a number of people in our community are struggling with declining incomes and layoffs. I certainly have friends who have lost their jobs, and even some where both husband and wife were laid off within weeks of each other.

Each of us can and usually does form an opinion as to how much teachers and other school employees should be paid. Some will make comparisons to other professions and say teachers should be paid commensurate with engineers or bankers, especially since teachers are expected to earn Masters degrees early in their career. Others observe that if we place high value on the education of our kids, then we should place high value on the teachers as well, and pay them accordingly.

I belong to the school of thought that teachers should be paid a competitive wage. In other words, we should be willing to pay our teachers enough so as to recruit and retain teachers who can and will perform up to and beyond our expectations. The trick is coming up with a way to quantify our expectations, and to figure out if our pay policies are helping or hindering the achievement of those goals.

We have a few quantitative measures of performance available to us. The Ohio Department of Education publishes Report Cards for each school district which give an indication how our kids perform on standardized tests. Another is the remediation rate as published by the Ohio Board of Regents, which shows that 26% of the Hilliard kids who take a college prep curriculum in high school need remedial English or math once they reach college.

But we mostly rely on qualitative factors and our emotions. Do we feel our kids are getting a good education? Is my kid having a good experience in school? Does my kid like his/her teachers? Do I like my kid's teachers? That's okay – feelings and emotions are valid evaluation tools.

So let's say that in general, we're satisfied with the performance of our teachers and staff. Now how do we go about figuring out what they should be paid?

In the private sector, that's usually pretty easy. The management of a company will pay just enough to recruit and retain employees who will perform the functions required at the level of quality demanded. Employers who aren't willing to pay this amount – whatever it is – will find it difficult to fill positions, or will discover that they end up hiring people unable to perform up to the employer's expectations.

There have been times and situations in the American economy when the employers had the upper hand. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, people flocked from a life of scraping by on subsistence farming to the potential of a steady wage earned working in America's new factories. Industrialists like Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie had all the cheap unskilled labor they would want and more, and so could run their operations on a highly profitable basis, becoming incredibly wealthy in the process.

Gradually the workers began to organize, and found that if they spoke in one voice, they could substantially equalize the power of the two parties – ownership and labor. The two sides fought vigorously, and sometimes violently – trying to find that point of equilibrium where the ownership was making enough profit to keep running the enterprise and the employees earning high enough wages to make it worth coming to work every day.

We're now entering a new stage in American labor relations. As labor costs have continued to rise over the last few decades, an increasing fraction of manufacturing operations have been shifted out of the US to other countries with workers willing to labor for significantly less than their American counterparts. This wound has been slowly bleeding for a long time, causing pain here and there as factories have closed down. Now we're hemorrhaging jobs, which is both a cause and effect of our global recession. America's largest manufacturing concern – General Motors – may soon cease to exist. It will certainly never be the GM of Alfred Sloan's time again.

Consequently, the power of the labor unions, such as the United Auto Workers (UAW) has declined as well. Both management and labor are struggling to find a way to keep the company alive, and everyone is making concessions. My objective is not to demonize the labor unions here – the leaders of these failing firms have been idiots, mainly because of their short-term orientation.

But the point is that there are, I expect, tens if not hundreds of thousands of laid-off UAW members who would work for a fraction of their former wages just to have a job again. This current economic event is causing a reset of all labor rates in our country, at all pay levels.

Except in the public sector, and especially in school districts in middle-class suburbs.

Here in the Hilliard School District, our teachers and staff received a 3% base pay increase in 2008, are getting another 3% increase this year, and will receive an additional 3% in 2010. On top of that, all teachers earning less than $76,769/yr (in 2009) will get an additional 4.15% step increase each year. For a teacher with 13 years experience and a Master's degree (which all are now required to have by their 10th year of teaching), the current contract sets the pay to $68,712 in 2008, $73,712 in 2009, and $79,072 in 2010. That's an increase of $10,360 in just three years, or 15% in total.

Are they being overpaid? That question can't be answered in isolation. We have to bring in a couple of other factors to the analysis.

How about the first test – are we having any trouble hiring and retaining good teachers? I don't have any facts in this regard, but it is my understanding that a great number of people apply for every open teaching spot in Hilliard City Schools. My eldest daughter is a teacher, and I can attest to the challenge a new college graduate has getting a job in a well-regarded public schools (and it's much harder for a music teacher, as she is). So I have confidence that our pay scale is sufficient to recruit new teachers.

How good is it for recruiting experienced teachers? Turns out that we can't find out because the HEA agreement disallows the transfer of more than 10 years of service (Article 29, C), and since seniority dictates all kinds of important stuff, a teacher with 20 years of experience in Dublin, for example, would be nuts to transfer to Hilliard and give up 10 years of seniority.

How about retention? Are we losing experiencing teachers because the pay scale is too low? How about new teachers? Common belief is that more teachers leave the field in the first five years than in the rest of their careers. That's probably true, as young teachers find that their romantic visions of being a teacher vastly differs from the reality of being in a classroom every day. Lacking the data, I'll go with this observation: no one in our school leadership – Board, Administration or HEA – is talking about there being a retention problem.

Employee compensation is not a topic that typically comes up at levy time – not in the affluent I-270 suburbs around here at least. But that is changing. Members of the New Albany levy campaign committee were outraged when a substantial part of the proceeds of the levy they worked to pass was used to give district employees a pay raise. Where did they think that money was going to go when nearly 90% of a district's operating expenses are salaries and benefits?

A group called EducateWorthington has been formed to bring this issue of compensation out in the open – a parallel effort to ours here in Hilliard. I've had the privilege to meet Mike Alfred and John Herrington, and remain in dialog with them. I'm also grateful that Marc Schare, a member of the Worthington Board of Education, frequently comments on this blog. EducateWorthington recently organized and hosted a community meeting, much like those our grassroots group started in November of last year (yes, Mr. Fedako, we're still alive).

Members of the Hilliard Education Association and the Hilliard Local of OAPSE: You have our future in your hands. I encourage you to be empathetic members of our community, and think about what you will offer to the taxpayers who have supported you so generously over the years, and are now collectively feeling more pain and anxiety about their financial futures than ever before in their lives. You don't have to wait until your current contract expires. You can take action right now – today – to stretch our levy dollars without affecting programming or services.


  1. There are a couple other factors to also consider in the total compensation package:

    1. Very favorable health benefits, even when the contract gets to 10% employee contribution.

    2. Fantastic retirement benefits. You constantly hear of teachers retiring in their mid-50s, and getting a very nice pension.

    3. # hours worked a year. To make some sweeping assumptions, there are 180 school days a year. Assume a teacher works 9 hours a day (time at school is approx 7 hours, some time to grade during that, and add a couple hours a day extra).

    I know this is subjective...some teachers put more in, others it seems a lot less (esp. when my son doesn't get a graded test back by the time the next test is taken three weeks later, or when work-to-rule is thrown in).

    So, assume 1260 hours worked a year. Let's even add 240 extra hours to make up for self-study, extra events, and prep/planning/grading work at home.

    1500 hours a year. The average private-sector worker is at least 2000. That puts a teacher at 75% of hours, which would translate a $75,000 salary to $100,000 for a full year. Then the great benefits on top of it.

    I don't know what a teacher's salary should be, but I do know that looking at it this way (entire package), it is not something that justifies any discussion of being treated unfairly.

  2. Paul, thanks for the link to the
    Worthington site. Perhaps in the fall during the elections something can be put out similarly

    I will access the remediation
    link later however, this is a huge problem, which we hear very little about. This is an additional tax for students and taxpayers to have to pay for additional credit hours
    Not an inexpensive deal

    I am contemplating going back to the board and revisiting my
    2.5 to 3% spending growth
    suggestion. This tied in with the question on remediation

    If we have slower growth, we can make our levies last longer.

    If anyone read the dispatch
    on the latest plan, it is interesting that it would appear we could be facing some cuts from the state.

    It would be nice if we started talking about this now, to come up with a workable plan.

  3. New Albany residents formed the "Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility & Accountability".

    Check out their rather impressive website at:

    (Sorry, I don't know how to create the actual link, but you all know how to cut & paste.)

    An article about their efforts appeared in This Week (New Albany edition) on April 14th which can still be found online.

    We are most definitely not alone.

  4. How many "classroom hours" per day are your teachers committed to, per their contract?

    Look at your hourly, augmented staffers: lunchroom, playground and study hall aides.

    Look at your state minimum requirements pertaining to assistant principals and other staff.

    Olentangy spent something like $25,000 on a study that compared their environment against the state minimum requirements of a school district. Jim Fedako posted the report on his blog. It's astounding. No wonder why the Olentangy board ignored it.

    There are plenty of saves to be had. You just need to know the granularity of your expenses in areas that are overlooked.

  5. Anonymous:

    No doubt that this is an exercise in peeling the layers of the onion. I'm quite familiar with the notion of staff inflation, having worked in and led large organizations myself. One of the hardest things to do as a manager is to resist the temptation to overbuild the team when things are going good, because inevitably things will turn, and you have to layoff all those extra folks. The tradeoff is overworking your core team during the growth phase, which isn't usually a smart move either.

    I'm sure that many roles have evolved from 'nice-to-have' to 'must-have' in the minds of our school leadership, and even particular constituents of parents.

    We're not quite at a crisis stage, but I can see it on the horizon. As our salary and benefits costs continue to climb well in excess of average income growth in the community - even if headcount remains constant - there will inevitably be a time when we can't get an operating levy passed to sustain it, and significant layoffs will have to occur.

    The unions and their lobbyists in the Statehouse are working hard to shift our school funding system over to one where the public doesn't have the same kind of voice we have today. Unsurprisingly, the Governor and the General Assy have discovered there's not enough money to do what the unions want.

    So my appeal to the unions is to let up on the accelerator on their own accord, and let's head off what could be a destructive conflict.