Sunday, September 20, 2009

Us vs The Teacher’s Union

As was the case prior to the last election, the Hilliard Education Association (HEA) – the union representing teachers and other certified staff in our school district – invited the candidates for School Board to participate in their process for selecting who the HEA would back in the upcoming election. All three of the candidates – Justin Gardner, Don Roberts, and I – participated in the interviews (here are my comments). Yesterday we all three received letters from the HEA telling us that we would not be getting their support.

Instead, the HEA will be supporting incumbents Andy Teater and Lisa Whiting, plus Chris Courtney, the candidate supported by the Hilliard Democratic Party.

Let's remember that this time next year our School Board will be engaged in negotiating a new labor agreement with the HEA as well as the classified staff union, OAPSE Local #310. The outcome of that negotiation will be heavily influenced by who sits on the School Board, and the unions are not going to let that be left up to chance. They picked these three people because this is who they want to be negotiating with – not Justin, Don and me.

Here's one thing I want to be clear about: WE ARE NOT ANTI-UNION. Unions play an important and valuable role in our society by giving workers the strength of numbers when negotiating – even demanding – better compensation and working conditions. I grew up in a blue collar family in West Virginia, perhaps one of the most unionized states in our country, with some of the most dangerous occupations. I have no doubt that the prosperity enjoyed by my generation was facilitated by the struggles of our union forefathers.

However, that doesn't mean the unions should get whatever they want. The historic role of the union is to level the table when negotiating with the ownership of a company. Instead of being indentured servants of the powerful coal mine operators, the union leaders could sit down at the bargaining table knowing that until the owner and the union came to a compromise, no one was going to make any money. It is a kind of economic "mutually assured destruction," and the stakes run high, as do emotions. The "mine wars" in Mingo County WV were just that – not a euphemism, but a real war in which people died.

The risk to the owner is that the customers will find other suppliers if the work stoppage lasts too long. The risk to the union members is that the owner will find another way to make money, and just shut down the business. For both parties, a work stoppage is generally a bad thing.

The situation is fundamentally different when the employer is a public entity. For one thing, there is no "owner" per se. The organization is by definition an entity operated for the common good of the people, who are represented by a School Board elected from the members of the community. There is no profit objective, and the money being put on the table is that of the people, not the Board's. And it's a lot of money – to the tune of $140 million per year and growing rapidly.

On the other side of the bargaining table are the unionized workers – or more precisely, their union officers. They will be joined by professional negotiators from the state organization, the Ohio Education Association.

The process is, by design, an adversarial one. The School Board, representing the people, take a position of wanting to spend less on employees, while the union leaders, representing their membership, will want to get more. A give-and-take process follows until the parties find a mutually acceptable answer.

Here's where labor negotiations in private industry are radically different than those between School Boards and teachers: the teachers get to hold the kids of our community hostage. If the town steel mill shuts down during a strike, everyone's kids still get to go to school. If the teachers go on strike, the kids get hurt – particularly those in high school, many of whom are getting prepared to compete for a spot in college.

And so we have this situation where parents of school age children are almost frenzied to make sure the schools stay in session and the teachers are happy, to the point that just about any levy on the ballot, regardless of size, will get their support. Anyone who offers any criticism of the status quo is immediately branded an enemy of the state – because such is person is perceived to be a threat to their children. I understand this completely. I have voted in favor of every single levy that has been on the ballot for precisely this reason.

But we have been led to a dangerous place, and both our School Board and the union leaders are complicit. This dangerous place is one where critical decisions are being made on emotion rather than reason. It is this way not because the people of our community are irrational, but rather because the only thing they have to go on is hearsay and emotion.

That is the fault of our school leadership. For nearly a decade, I have recommended to our School Board that they get ahead of this looming crisis, starting with the creation of a program of community education about school economics, of which labor relations plays a large part. There have been at best feeble attempts (e.g. the ACT Committee and the Treasurer's Committee), with no real impact.

Once the smart and talented people of our community have a better handle on how school economics work, then we can have an informed and rational conversation with the teachers about compensation. Just as diplomacy is better than war, a rational and empathetic conversation between the people of our community and the teachers is better than a strike.

But just as we cannot say that our country will never go to war regardless of the threat, we can't say the School Board will never press issues of great importance to the point of a teacher strike.

So it's up to you – the people of Hilliard – to decide whether you want your representatives on the school board to be those chosen by the teachers' union, or by independent thinkers who understand the proper role of our School Board.


  1. Very interesting,

    The candidates supported will certainly insure that we will have business as usual. Perhaps each of the endorsed candidates will tell us how much money we should begin to set aside for significant increases via levy to address the
    forecasted shortfall of over 50 million dollars in years 4 and 5
    of the five year financial forecast

  2. Taxation without representation!

  3. My vote is for Paul and company.

    I am not "anti-union" either, but feel the union is out of control. Every time I bring up reigning the spending and raises under control, I keep getting the same tired "why don't you want strong schools in our community".

    Here's a novel thought; I think we can have both great schools and more sensible spending, but not by following the status quo. The union is not about better school, but about the best for their membership.

  4. Thanks for your vote.

    Now we really need you and all other readers to make sure your friends know about us. The best thing is to send them to


  5. Paul, Paul,'ve tainted perfectly good candidates (Justin & Don) by their association with you! (Just kidding.)

    Seriously, good post. I think the way it works with the union is this: if you're a board candidate who doesn't suck up to them, then you're ANTI-union. I wouldn't take it personally.

    Speaking of powerful teacher unions, it was interesting to see the NY Times mention South Africa's problem:

    The teachers’ union too often protected its members at the expense of pupils, critics say.

    “We have the highest level of teacher unionization in the world, but their focus is on rights, not responsibilities,” Mamphela Ramphele, former vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, said in a recent speech.

    South Africa’s new education minister, Angie Motshekga, said in an interview that a lack of accountability had weakened the whole system.

    Sounds vaguely familiar.

  6. Interesting article in the Metro section of the dispatch on the
    working to the contract movement in Bexley

    Noted in the article is that some are worried about college information needed that does not fall within the guidelines of the contract.

    If it is really "about the kids:
    would it not be appropriate to
    insure that anything to do with
    processing material for college including reccomendations, and financial aid, might just be a priority

    At the coffee last week, I brought this up as to our own contract. I know that Dave Lundegran wrote it down on his note pad.

    Great question for meet the candidates night. Do you support
    including language in the contract that college materials that include scholarships, grants, federal monies, state monies and other material needed to enter a
    university or college be not optional by the staff when working to the contract ?

  7. Paul...please...just saying the word "anti-union" will get you a 1,000 votes.

  8. We're not anti-union in principle, and we don't believe it is necessary or wise to start a holy war for the purpose of busting the HEA.

    But we do want both the people of Hilliard as well as the teachers of HCSD to give the HEA leadership, the Administration, the School Board each their share of accountability for this fiscal mess looming on the horizon. All are culpable.

    As School Board members, Don, Justin and I will require the creation of an effective program to educate the community on the basics of school economics, and then facilitate a community dialog about taxes vs compensation - the conversation the HEA leadership means to put all their muscle behind stopping.

  9. Interesting chart in todays Dispatch on medical cost payments in Hilliard. The amount goes up
    10% in the 3rd year premium

    $40.00 for a monthly single payment
    ?????????? on a monthly basis and the last contract did not pass by much ? 7% increase for almost 70% of the group.

    A fairly negotiated contract which obviously the board did not keep us very well informed as a community.

    This should be a key question at
    Meet the Candidates night.

  10. Rick:

    We will never resolve the question of what one workers in one field should be paid compared to those in others. One would hope salaries are set by supply-and-demand mechanisms, meaning employers would have to pay enough to attract workers of the necessary skill level in sufficient quantity.

    In the context of education, it would mean that if a school district finds that it cannot fill all the teaching spots, it would offer higher and higher salaries until a sufficient number of appropriately skilled teachers step forward to take the openings.

    On an ongoing basis, the school district would need compensation practices that retain sufficient skilled teachers to keep all the slots filled. If there is a problem in the compensation model, one would expect to see teachers leaving at certain points.

    I was just listening to the audio of the 9/29/09 Olentangy School Board meeting (why doesn't our Board make this available?) and heard a pretty interesting comment:

    A consultant made a presentation to the Board in which he said "there are 4,000 applications for employment on file," which would suggest that Olentangy has no problem finding applicants even though their average pay is well less than Hilliard's (which may also be the result of their explosive growth, requiring that many new, presumably young, teachers needed to be hired).

    I suspect that our school district has a similar glut of applicants vs open positions. That would suggest that there is no upward pressure on salaries because there are no positions going unfilled.

    Nonetheless, our salary grid advances 7% per year as it has for at least a decade.

    But here's the point: The teachers aren't the bad guys. They're just negotiating the best deal they can. And they use the power of their union to press their point.

    The problem is that the public isn't putting people on the School Board who will play their negotiating role effectively.

    The Board needs to educate the community about all this stuff so that they can bring the power of the community to the negotiating table.

    Does that mean the teachers will have to take less? Maybe - it depends on the will of the people of the community. But I suspect that the more likely outcome is that the teachers will have to accept a little less than they asked for, and the community will have to pay a little more than they want.

    That's the way negotiations generally go. "Win-Win" is a pipe-dream. An effective negotiation ends up with "OK-OK"

    The kind of negotiation that happens in a free market between two equally savvy and motivated negotiators.

  11. Paul, agree with 99.5% and yes each side should be willing to contribute
    I think the community has done this.

    I dont think we should be giving a free pass to the teachers however who chose to work to the contract and deny scholarship paper work to students. Thought it was allways about the kids, or so they tell us.
    We cannot accept any longer that this type of behavior is ok whether it is 10 or 100

  12. Speaking of "win-win" - and I know you weren't talking about Columbus/Hilliard agreement - What is the real cost of the Columbus win-win agreement? I've always bought the line that it is a financial positive for HCSD as 51% of the tzes coe from Columbus, but only 49% of the students from from Columbus. Seems reaseonable, however, what are the "other" associated costs? I wonder what the impact of Columbus students have on the district, such as ELL, special tutoring, test scores, etc. I am not saying all Columbus is bad and all Hilliard is good. However, many of the non-english speaking students come from the apartments that are in the Columbus city limits...

    Questions for Paul, Don, and Justin:

    1) How has the increase of ELL and special tutoring impacted the district?

    2) What, as board members, will you do to address this issue (the cost aspect of it)?

    3) What is the long-term financial picture for this district, even if teachers and other members of the staff take a reduction in salary increases? With state funding being reduced and program costs going up, isn't this a crtical financial burden in addition to pay increases? I would like to hear how you will address, not only the teacher contract that is upcoming, but also the OTHER financial issues that will certainly plague this district in the next 2 to 6 years.

    As much as you want to make it all about the teachers, there are other issues in play here.

  13. Voter:

    Thanks for your questions.

    Here are some pieces I've written that address the Win-Win.

    Don, Justin and I will answer your other questions shortly.


  14. I'm still very interested in your response to the these questions. I am forming my opinion for this year's election and would like to hear your position/planned action for the following: (From previous post....

    2) What, as board members, will you do to address this issue (the cost aspect of it)?

    3) What is the long-term financial picture for this district, even if teachers and other members of the staff take a reduction in salary increases? With state funding being reduced and program costs going up, isn't this a crtical financial burden in addition to pay increases? I would like to hear how you will address, not only the teacher contract that is upcoming, but also the OTHER financial issues that will certainly plague this district in the next 2 to 6 years.

  15. Voter:

    2) The direct answer is that we don't know the true incremental cost of the ELL kids in our schools versus the specific Federal funding that the district receives to help offset that cost.

    There are many layers of this onion to be peeled, and the costs of specific programs are something we haven't dug into yet. We certainly will if elected.

    Many people don't understand why there are kids outside the City of Hilliard attending Hilliard City Schools. If you are one of them, I suggest reading this article, written in the March 2008.

    While I have concern that we opened our borders too much in the last decade or so, and are doing too little to enforce our nation's immigration laws, the kids are here and the law says we have to educate them. Don't take that out on the school district - yell at Congress for letting it happen, and not backing it up with enough Federal money.

    Note that it's not just the immigrant kids who might need help. There are more than a few native born American kids who struggle and need special attention.

    Our own teammate, Don Roberts, has a daughter with Down Syndrome who requires extra attention. I would hope that you support spending an appropriate amount of our tax dollars to help her reach her full potential.

    3) This is a question we're better prepared for, and address it on our website,

    Even if there is a substantial reduction in the rate of increase of our compensation and benefits costs, our district still has two major sources of financial risk:

    a) The State of Ohio is itself in a financial crisis. If there is a significant slide in revenue to the State, they will eventually have to start digging into the school funding, and they do that by first cutting back the funding to the those districts which it classifies as affluent, and that includes Hilliard. Every dollar in State funding taken away has to be replaced with local funding, or eliminated from our budget.

    Let's put it this way, for every $2.4 million that our State funding is reduced, we'll need to raise our taxes 1 mill to make up the difference. That's $31 for each $100,000 of home value.

    Doesn't sound like much, but the newest Five Year Forecast projects state funding to be $8.8 million LESS in 2014 than it was in 2009. That will take 3.63 mills to cover, or $111/yr per $100,000 of valuation. Remember that salaries and benefits are continuing to grow, albeit at a reduced rate.

    b) The second risk is that something happens to the housing market that causes lots more people to come to Hilliard and build houses (e.g. on the nearly 1,000 acres of land which developers just annexed to the City of Hilliard).

    In the past, a new home has brought on the order of 0.8 new kids to the school district. At a cost of $10,000/kid to educate them in our school system, it means a new house will add $8,000 in cost. However, a new $150,000 house generates school tax of only $3,500/yr. Since the State of Ohio is not helping, it means the other $4,500 in cost gets dumped on the rest of us.

    With 1,000 new houses, that's 800 new kids, and $3.6 million in cost that the rest of us have to cover. That's another 1.5 mills for each of us.

    We're not going to be able to do much about the loss of State funding except stand up and yell about it with the other 600 school districts in Ohio.

    But we can have a say in the pace of residential development. If you live in the City of Hilliard, this City Council election is pretty important. I suggest you ask those candidates what they're going to do to control residential growth, in order to protect the fiscal viability of our schools and our community.

    May I ask, do these answers - plus what we've discussed on our website - earn your vote?