More teachers see pay freezes as economy sputters

NEW BRITAIN–Sometime this spring, teachers in this cash-strapped school system will begin negotiating their next labor contract, and, once again, they will face an unpleasant choice: Give up pay raises or give up jobs.

Here and in other beleaguered school systems across the state, many teachers and other union employees are foregoing raises and making other concessions as Connecticut weathers the worst financial crisis in decades.

“We’re treading water but sinking rapidly,” said Ronda Barker, president of the New Britain Federation of Teachers. “It’s very difficult to negotiate in this climate.”

In contracts signed within the last year, the average raise for a teacher is less than 1 percent in the current school year and about 3 percent each of the next two years. That’s far less than the average raise of nearly 5 percent annually on contracts signed during the 2007-08 school year, according to the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

In addition, in a handful of contested teacher contracts resolved under the state’s arbitration law last year, arbitrators favored school boards over unions on salary issues three to one, according to CEA figures.

“None of that surprises me. That’s all about what we’re seeing nationwide,” said Michael Griffith, senior policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States, which monitors education trends in the 50 states.

“In some cases, we’re seeing teachers taking furlough days.  In other cases, lower pay,” he said. “Pay freezes are really common right now, [and] increasing contributions to health care.”

The battle over contract concessions has gained national attention in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker last week signed a law that not only requires financial concessions but strips public employee unions of most bargaining rights. While Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy has defended bargaining rights, he, too, is seeking concessions from public employees to offset the state’s massive deficit.

Unlike Wisconsin, where Walker proposes to slash more than $800 million from state education funds, Connecticut would keep state education funding at current levels under a budget proposed by Malloy, who pledged to replace some $270 million the state will lose when federal stimulus funding for education expires.

Malloy urged teachers not to erode those funds by demanding raises that would result in further layoffs.

“All that would accomplish is more people out of work and more students per teacher,” he said in his budget speech last month. “And please don’t take that as a threat.  It’s not.  It’s a respectful request that reflects the reality of our times.”

Nowhere is that reality more apparent than in New Britain.

Under their current labor contract, teachers’ salaries will be frozen for the 2011-12 school year. That will not be enough, however, to avert layoffs.

After laying off about 50 employees this year, the district is projecting more than 100 additional layoffs next year, including about 10 percent of the teaching staff. The fiscal crisis has forced the school system to drop foreign language classes and programs for gifted students at middle schools, reduce technology classes at high schools and expand class sizes throughout the district.

Next year, the district also plans to cut back its all-day kindergarten program to half days, and officials estimate average class sizes could reach 25 students in kindergarten, 30 in elementary schools and as many as 35 to 40 in middle and high schools.

“Everybody’s feeling the pressure,” said Barker, the union president. “Everyone is thinking it can’t get any worse, and then you look at Wisconsin.”

Sharon Beloin-Saavedra, president of the New Britain Board of Education, said that imposing layoffs on top of a pay freeze “makes it very hard to ask for [more] concessions.” Nevertheless, she said teachers “understand the predicament we’re in. What they don’t want is for us to blame them for it.”

Across the state, about 60 percent of the teacher contracts signed during the past year include salary freezes this year, according to the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.

“Our members do understand these are tough times for the state, and the times have been reflected in the settlements they’ve been willing to accept,” said John Yrchik, executive director of the CEA.

As recently as the 2003-04 school year, Connecticut teachers had the highest average salary among the 50 states and District of Columbia, but the ranking slipped to sixth in 2009-10 with an average of $64,350, according to figures compiled by the National Education Association. New York, at $71,633, had the highest average, followed by Massachusetts at $69,273.

Some negotiators say the fiscal crisis has changed the tone of discussions between labor and management.

“Teachers have taken a turn toward being more conciliatory, recognizing we’re in a crisis,” said Ron Jakubowski, assistant superintendent for business and operations in New Britain, where teachers and other employee groups also have paid an increasing portion of health insurance costs.

“It’s a new mindset,” said Bob Namnoun, a veteran CEA union negotiator representing teachers in several towns in Northwestern Connecticut. “There’s a sense we’re in this together. We will survive this crappy economy…

“I remember the old days, the yelling and screaming. It’s not that anymore.”

In Middletown, unionized employees, including teachers, took pay freezes this year. “We couldn’t have made our budget this year without their help,” said school board Chairman Theodore Raczka. He said labor negotiations “have been fairly intense, but they have always been respectful.”

Not everyone has agreed to concessions. In Waterford, school officials recently asked the teachers’ union to postpone a scheduled 4.3 percent salary increase for next year, but the union has refused, said Don Blevins, school board chairman. Without some reduction in expenses, Blevins projects the district may have to lay off 15 to 20 employees.

In Enfield, several employee groups–including nurses, clerical workers, cafeteria employees and paraprofessionals–agreed to make concessions in 2009, but the teachers’ union refused. While the district’s budget remained flat, teachers received annual raises in excess of 5 percent. The union, however, lost its bid for a raise next year when a state arbitration panel approved a school board proposal for a pay freeze in the first year of a new contract. The arbitrators also approved the board’s proposal for a 1.5 percent increase the second year of the contract but granted the union’s proposal for a 2.6 percent increase the third year.

In its ruling, the arbitration panel said teachers “have understandably become accustomed to the type of raises agreed to in the past…But with the economic collapse, there have been layoffs and cuts in supplies and programs, mainly because of the size of the salary account. That is not at all in the public interest.”