Ben Dick: Teachers had good reason to reject Manchester contract offer
One gets tired of being a punching bag, though it's clear the New Hampshire Union Leader doesn't tire of punching. In an editorial dated Dec. 16, the paper claimed the Manchester Education Association is "continuing to taunt the city for fun." As is often the case, the paper has taken an opportunity to attack public education, its teachers and its union while neglecting to present the entire story.
The Union Leader stated that the MEA "had rejected a contract similar to ones accepted by school paraprofessionals, principals and every other city union." On the surface this is somewhat accurate, but in reality it isn't.
It is true that all three school unions that agreed to new contracts did agree to a 20 percent premium. It is also true that they all agreed to a salary increase that adheres to the tax cap. That last fact is misleading, though. You see, two of the three groups (principals and directors/coordinators) don't have salary scales to fill. Once a salary is set for people within that unit they receive straight cost-of-living adjustments (COLA's). Under this year's tax cap, they will receive roughly a 2.17 percent COLA. It should also be noted that these two groups are not only without a salary schedule, but they enjoy the largest salaries amongst the organized groups on the district side.
The MEA currently has a 14-step salary scale. Therefore, unlike, say, an administrator, it takes a teacher 14 years to reach the top of the pay scale. An administrator begins Day One at the top of the pay scale, then receives a straight COLA on that maximum salary. Any salary increase to the budget for the MEA would need to fulfill the salary scale before affording those on the top of the scale any COLA.
When factoring in the current breakdown of the teaching force (about 48 percent on the salary scale and 52 percent off), the tax cap salary increase would be enough to fill the salary scale and then give those off of it a 0.33 percent COLA. This is a far cry from the 2.17 percent COLA for the highest-paid organized employees in the district, but a punch the Union Leader is more than willing to throw nonetheless. I suppose one might call that a similar offer, but when played out it is far from the same.
The unions on the city side that have recently agreed to new contracts could also be said to have "similar" contracts, I suppose. Of course, they weren't asked to adhere to the tax cap. Instead, their salary scales were filled and they were given a 1 percent COLA. This in and of itself is a better offer than the one presented to the MEA. Throw in the insurance offer they received (17.5 percent vs. 20 percent) and one couldn't begin to call the offers similar, unless one was intent on hitting public education and its dedicated professionals again and again, as the Union Leader and its editorial staff seem committed to doing.
The editorial later claims that the MEA allies on the Board of School Committee are so "fed up with (our) intransigence" that they voted to have the mayor take over negotiations. What was this intransigence? If you've followed Dr. Avard's sharing of the district's offer (I'm told you can see it on Facebook), you know what they put on the table. Our intransigence was to ask for 1) 17.5 percent insurance premiums, 2) retroactive steps instead of concrete COLAs that would have been similar to the city unions or other school groups, and 3) a three-year deal instead of a deal that could force us to negotiate again in 12 months.
It should be noted that the original offer from the MEA back in the spring of 2013 was to increase the insurance over three years' time so that we maxed out at 15 percent and 20 percent for the HMO and POS plans respectively. The last offer we made was to jump to 17.5 percent, just like the city groups that recently settled. The initial offer from the district was to jump immediately to 20 percent. In the end, the city agreed to give us six months at 15 percent on the HMO before jumping to 20 percent, while moving the POS to 20 percent right away. I think the wrong group was labeled as intransigent, but then again that is keeping with the ways of the Union Leader and its editorial board: take punches at the dedicated public servants, even if those punches aren't warranted.
Ben Dick is president of the Manchester Education Association.