Contract ties Rocky Point teachers' raises to tax cap

Rocky Point School District Superintendent Dr. Michael Ring. Rocky Point School District Superintendent Dr. Michael Ring. (Sept.19, 2013) Photo Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

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A new nine-year contract between the Rocky Point school district and its teachers union ties future raises to a formula based on the district's state-imposed tax cap -- an approach believed to set a statewide precedent, officials said Thursday.

"We know the tax cap is there and it is not going away," Rocky Point Superintendent Michael Ring said. "And we have to recognize that the tax cap has to play a role in what we negotiate in terms of compensation."

The 3,300-student Suffolk County district appears to be the first and only district in the state to explicitly tie future compensation to the tax cap, said Carl Korn, spokesman for the state's largest teachers union.

The cap, which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed into law in 2011 and must be renewed by the State Legislature after five years, limits increases on property-tax levies to 2 percent or the growth in the Consumer Price Index, whichever is smaller, although there are some cost exemptions. School budgets that pierce a district's tax cap must be approved by a 60 percent vote.

Last spring, in the second budget vote since the law took effect, voters rejected most cap-busting budgets. Statewide, 28 districts attempted to override their caps, and 21 were voted down.

The new contract for Rocky Point's 265 teachers resolves two years of negotiations. The contract, which runs from July 1, 2011, through June 30, 2020, carries no increases for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years. There is a 0.65 percent increase in both 2013-14 and 2014-2015.

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From that point, salary hikes for the years 2015-16 through 2019-20 are tied to the tax cap and carry a defined minimum and maximum, which school officials said avoids a spike in labor costs.

Under the agreement, teachers in those years will receive annual raises of no less than 0.5 percent and no more than 1 percent, with the exact amount calculated using the district's tax cap, which varies from year to year. This year, Rocky Point's tax-levy limit was 3.56 percent; in the 2012-13 school year, it was 1.84 percent.

"We are glad to have concluded this process with an agreement we feel will provide our district and membership with a level of certainty and sustainability for the next several years," said Michael Friscia, president of the Rocky Point Teachers Association.

Ring said while the agreement may be unique now, he expects other districts to follow.

"A lot of districts . . . may look to this as a model because of the very real reality that the tax cap is the major driver in terms of revenue for districts," he said.

Korn, of New York State United Teachers, said that though the contract's tie to the tax cap is new, the concept of linking educators' future compensation to a base quantifier is not unusual. For years, for example, pay raises have taken into account increases in the Consumer Price Index.

"In a sense, however, every negotiation is implicitly tied to the cap," Korn said. "It's the elephant in the room." He said the cap is "starving districts of local revenue" and has led to "deep cuts in programs and staff over the past few years, and a more difficult environment for collective bargaining."

The Rocky Point contract retains automatic "step increases," which teachers get each year until they reach the top of the salary schedule, although two steps will be removed by the close of the 2017-18 school year. The average step increase will change from year to year; the most recent average step increase in the district was 2.66 percent.

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In addition, the board or the teachers can opt out in the last two years of the contract if it is not working, and the parties will renegotiate if the tax cap no longer exists or is substantially altered.

The contract follows an earlier agreement reached between the district and the Rocky Point Administrators' Association that was touted as the first of its kind for unionized administrators. That pact, which runs through June 2015, introduced a goals-based incentive pay program.

"It motivates them," said Michael Nofi, president of the school board. "The employee gets a well-earned increase and the district gets a team driving toward a set of goals."

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