Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Private v Public Unions

I believe our best teachers are underpaid, yes, underpaid, and that our very high per pupil costs come from other than teacher salaries. This must be remembered when we try to address a very serious problem facing cities and towns.

It is no secret that our cities and towns are struggling to pay for services and also stay within the tax levy increase limits. As revenues from the state are lower than last year, towns need to replace that lost revenue. One easy answer is to increase property taxes on a population that is already paying among the highest in the country. This will not sit well.

Another choice is to look for cost savings, and unions, especially teachers' unions, will surely be asked to re-negotiate contracts. This of course, will be met with resistance. But I hope everyone will keep the following in mind in these tough times.

When private sector unions make concessions, their sacrifices will go to companies whose executives often make millions in salaries and to shareholders whose dividends can benefit from those concessions.

When a public sector union makes concessions the beneficiaries are not high priced executives but the people, the homeowners, the citizens of Rhode Island. That is an important difference.

I know this will not make me very popular in some circles but I believe it needs to be said. It's not us against them. We have to work together and we'll get through this.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Let Teachers Teach

In the Commentary in the Dec. 14, Sunday Journal, "Great Public schools belong in R.I." by Daniel McKee, mayor of Cumberland, he makes some excellent points, first and foremost, that public education is arguably the most important issue we face both locally and nationally.

I think most people will agree that our students are our most valuable and precious treasure and that quality education is our most important goal.

The article suggests that the answer is to bring in new education models such as Mayoral Academies, which claim to consistently outperform Rhode Island's public schools by wide margins.

We should do whatever we can to improve student performance. But is bypassing the existing public school system the best, most cost efficient way? Would it not be better to utilize the existing teacher and educator expertise and let them work with others to develop and implement the changes needed to reach the goal of academic excellence?

However, I do see one enormous obstacle - the Teachers' Contract.

In North Kingstown's contract there are 26 Titles and 2 Appendices. All of them deal in some fashion with the obligations of the schools to the teachers. Not one paragraph specifies the obligation of the teachers to student performance.

There are no requirements for example, that student performance be improved in any measurable way. There are however four pages specifying limiting class size and teaching hours. There are eleven pages regarding sick leave and absences but not one defining teacher responsibilities and performance.

The entire contract is weighted heavily in favor of teachers' wishes ignoring the school department, students or taxpayers. At first blush it is easy to blame the unions for this lopsided document but in truth the unions are doing their job. Their first obligation is to the teachers, despite their frequent battle cry, "It's for the kids". That is simply a ruse; it's for the teachers and that's what they have been hired to do.

It's the School Committee that has failed in its obligation to provide the best education for our children and has simply bowed to union demands whenever "for the kids" conflicts with "for the teachers". For example, if the School Committee were to close a school due to drop in enrollment saving the cost of fifteen teachers, they could only eliminate ten because the contract sets the number to ten. We'd have to pay for five unnecessary teachers. "For the Kids"? Hardly. I'll bet if teachers were able to work with planners without union influence they could come up with an outline that would be far better for both the taxpayers and the children.

The Town Council should establish an Education Panel to outline needs and goals and, together with the School Committee, set forth an agenda which would include, at minimum, major consolidations, reduction of and restructuring of the bureaucracy, pay increases for the better teachers and the introduction of merit pay.

Before adding another educational system give the current system one year to satisfy that goal. If it fails then we can move on.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Elephant in the Room

I recall some months ago when the automakers requested money, some congressmen wondered out loud whether it was a good idea to send money to help the very people that were responsible for the auto manufacturers' problems.

Watching the hearings over the past few days no one has had the guts to make this a condition for the 'bailout'. They were outraged then but now they seem afraid to require that the CEO's hand over control to someone else who will change the direction of the industry as a condition for receiving $Billions of our money.

Just an observation.