This op-ed by Rexburg Education Association secretary Dawn Anderson first appeared in the Standard Journal newspaper on Saturday, June 12. We reprint it here with the author's permission.
Last month a storm blew in. I’m not talking about the nasty May weather which threatened tomato plants and scuttled picnic plans, but the tempestuous teacher salary negotiations in the Madison School District. As the second largest employer in the county, the school district has a significant impact on the local economy. Teachers and students state-wide face a historic first: the Idaho legislature appropriated less money for public education this year than the previous year. Elected school board officials have been in a noticeable panic about finding the resources to cover salaries and benefits, which constitute the lion’s share of the district’s education costs.
Idaho’s constitution mandates a balanced state budget. It also mandates a safe and effective public education for its children. The turbulence caused by these presently conflicting mandates has strained the relationship between the school board and the Rexburg Education Association (REA). Tasked with determining teacher salaries for the upcoming year, the school board proposed a permanent 10.5% salary cut. Translated into hard numbers, this means that a teacher with some experience who now makes $33,000 a year would drop to $29,655.
But the school board, spooked by a $3 million dollar reduction from the state, has problems of its own. In the initial proposal sent out to all certified teaching staff, the board issued this statement: “It is the opinion of the District’s team that cuts must be significant and permanent, rather than of a one-time nature.” These cuts, phased in over three years, were to be mitigated by temporary bonus payments—but to do this, the district would have to spend down its rainy-day emergency money. While this would soften the blow, teachers would still be stuck with a permanent salary reduction. The REA offered other solutions where costs could be reduced by more temporary measures, such as furlough days. The Association believed this would create less hardship for staff while still ensuring the district’s financial solvency.
Responding to the threat of losing more income, several experienced teachers have already announced plans to seek employment in other states. Can we hire replacements? Probably. But a district made up of new, inexperienced teachers is hardly in the best interest of children. And a starting salary that makes some families eligible for food stamps will not attract a highly-qualified staff.
Madison teachers recognize that temporary salary reductions are necessary in these tough economic times. But the language in the Board’s proposal before mediation indicated no provisionsfor future state revenue increases. Many local educators have raised families here and contributed much to the community over the years. Subjecting them to deep and permanent cuts seems not only untenable, but unethical.
The storm has subsided for now. Both sides of the negotiations reached an uneasy truce, with teachers accepting a 6.5% reduction of total salary for the coming year only (4% salary reduction coupled with 2.5% reduction taken from furlough days) and provisions to cut further in 2011-2012 if necessary. This hard-won agreement did not result from wishful thinking or casual concessions on either side. It came because the REA negotiation committee—made up of local unionized teachers who worked all day with kids and then sat through hours-long, tension-filled meetings with school board members—refused to accept a permanent 10.5% pay cut for district staff.
I’ve heard a number of people deride the advocacy work of the REA, including community citizens, Board members and even some teachers. But I know this for a fact—without the bargaining power of the Association, the extended forecast for Madison School District would be even worse. When salaries drop sharply, experienced teachers leave and quality education for our kids declines. The local economy can even be affected in the short and long terms, since education plays such a pivotal role in a skilled labor market. Let’s hope the financial weather improves in the coming years, as many economists now predict. In the meantime, contact State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna and your state representatives and let them know that their budget priorities should include a sufficiently funded education for Idaho’s children.