Amid deep cuts, highest-paid teachers still get their raises

| 22 Feb 2012 | 02:27

GOSHEN — The Goshen School District cut half a million dollars from employee salaries this year. But the district’s highest-paid teachers will still get raises comparable to previous years. “We’re always very concerned about our new teachers,” said Robert Karchawer, president of the teacher’s union. “We haven’t really looked at the people on the other end. For the first time, we had an opportunity to look at people who’ve been here for many years.” The school district and teachers union on Aug. 24 ratified the new teacher’s contract, which extends through 2013. The district eliminated 13 teaching and two administrative jobs, and custodial workers and bus drivers will not move up the pay scale this year. Most Goshen teachers will get annual raises of 1 percent, 1 percent and 2 percent over the next three years — the lowest settlement in recent Goshen history, and one of the lowest in the county, according to Goshen Superintendent of Schools Daniel Connor. But the approximately 50 teachers who have been in the district for 21 years or more will receive annual raises of 3.3 percent, 3.6 percent, and 3.9 percent over the next three years. The 3.9 percent raise in 2012 will be the biggest single-year raise for veteran Goshen teachers since before 2007. Teachers will also now receive an additional $2,294 for reaching their 34th year in the district. Until now, bonuses for long-standing teachers were awarded every four years, beginning with a teacher’s 12th year in the district. The new 34-year bonus comes two years after the previous one. ‘Very unusual’ Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor to City Journal, who frequently writes about education, called the contract’s dual terms “very unusual.” “Most analyses I’ve seen, the argument is that teachers at the top levels, close to retiring, they have more than adequate salaries and very good retirement benefits,” said Stern. “Usually it’s the case that it’s the entry salaries, of the younger teachers, that are too low.” “I wouldn’t say by any stretch of imagination that 3.5 percent is a huge raise,” said Connor. “Is it a raise? Sure. And there are many people who say, ‘I don’t even have a job.’ I have great compassion for that. My wife hasn’t been able to find a job here, and we relocated over a year ago. “But to say it’ll inflate taxes? If we were awarding huge bonuses like they do in many private businesses, like they do on Wall Street, then you’d have an argument.” Equivalent raises for teachers new and old In the traditional system of “step” raises, teachers working their way up the pay scale receive automatic raises with each year of experience or educational degree, while teachers who have made the long slog and maxed out on the pay scale hit a plateau. “Philosophically, we’re trying to balance the raises people on the steps receive, with those off the steps,” explained Michael Isseks, vice president of the teacher’s union and a social studies teacher. “We’re not trying to sell out our new people. We’re looking for parity.” For some teachers, the bonus at the 34th year will be a benefit deferred that will kick in when the economy might be better, said Karchawer. It’s also, said Isseks, “another way of acknowledging someone who’s senior in the district, who’s committed 34 years of their lives to Goshen schools.” Over the next three years, a teacher nearing retirement might see a salary increase of about the same amount as a new teacher who starts out with a bachelors and, over the next three years, gets her masters. That begs the eternal question: Do teachers continue to get better — do they become more patient, develop a more comprehensive toolbox of skills — with age? Does the right teacher become a linchpin in a school district over time, and if so, what’s the worth? Exhibit A: Karchawer was the third-highest paid teacher in the district in 2009, making $113,129. His day often starts at 7 a.m. and ends at 11 p.m. In his 18 years as president of the teachers union, the district hasn’t had a single teacher grievance. He won an award this year from the Harvard-Radcliffe Club of the Hudson Valley for making an exceptional impact on a former student, who’s now a senior at Harvard. “Trust me, I’m the superintendent, he’s the president of the GTA. We don’t agree on everything,” said Connor. “But I gotta hand it to him. I haven’t met anybody who works harder than that guy, anywhere. If I had 250 of him, this would be an incredible district.” Aiming for the middle Goshen’s average teacher salary in 2009 was $62,765, slightly higher than the statewide average of $62,332 but lower than the Orange County median of $65,708, according to Carl Korn, press officer of the New York State United Teachers. “We’ve aimed at trying for the middle of the county,” said Karchawer. The district is spending $112,633 less this year than last on its full-time teachers, according to its capital budget document. “We’re aware people are unemployed and underemployed. This is probably one of our most conservative settlements we’ve had in many years.” Goshen’s second set of terms stands out, however, among some of the neighboring school districts that negotiated contracts during the recession. This summer, Pine Bush teachers got annual raises of less than 1 percent, 1.75 percent and 2 percent over the next three years. Washingtoville retroactively raised salaries by 1.9 percent for the 2009-10 school year, and by 1.85 percent this year, according to The Times Herald-Record. In September, Chester rolled over its contract with a 2 percent raise for teachers. The same month, Monroe-Woodbury inked a complex five-year contract, which extends the length of time a teacher must work to achieve her top salary from 14 to 19 years, by breaking up a $16,000 chunk previously awarded at the 14th year into smaller steps. Deferring the big increase was the only way for the union to “realize any kind of raise,” said Raymond Hodges, president of the Monroe teachers union. Most of Monroe’s teachers will continue to earn more than Goshen’s, although the most senior of Goshen teachers will see that gap narrowed by half by 2012. Monroe-Woodbury pays teachers more because of its geographical situation at the southern entrance of Orange County, Hodges explained. “In order to attract and retain teachers, we need to stay competitive with Rockland,” which is a 15-minute drive from Monroe. “That’s one of the reasons I came here 20 years ago. That’s the way it’s always been.” Goshen’s highest-paid teachers will continue to make more than their Warwickian counterparts, whose salary was negotiated in the relative prosperity of 2008. Meanwhile, the majority of Goshen’s teachers will see their salaries drop in comparison to Warwick’s. By 2012, Goshen’s new hires will be making about $4,500 less than their peers to the south, and Goshen’s 12-year teachers will be making about $9,500 less than their contemporaries at Warwick. Warwick’s contract would “absolutely” look different if it were negotiated today, said Timothy Holmes, Warwick’s assistant superintendent for business. “Salaries are coming in much lower than they were when this contract was settled,” he said. Pay it forward New York State teachers’ pensions are based on their highest three consecutive years’ salaries. It’s common practice across school districts to try to max out one’s salary at the end of a career. From the school board’s perspective, bumping a teacher’s end-of-career salary makes no sense, said Stern. “It’s really crazy to give out a huge salary increase to teachers who have no alternative,” he said. “They’re not going to leave, they’re not going anywhere. It raises pension costs enormously, for 20 years after [a teacher’s] retirement, on average. I can’t imagine what kind of leverage the union has to get that real honey pot. The future taxpayers are going to take a real hit on this.” But Connor said retirements are stretching everyone’s budget. “The issue is not just with teacher pensions, and not just in New York, but with retirement benefits for police officers and public employees across the country,” he said. “I don’t have the answer to that. I know that the people here, at least in this district, I’ve known them for 16 months, and they work extremely hard.”