While a contract dispute in the Plainview-Old Bethpage school district has produced a flare-up between parents and teachers - a rare occurrence on Long Island - other local teacher unions are bowing to economic reality and accepting lower raises than in the past.

A Newsday survey of eight districts that have signed new teacher contracts since June finds first-year salary raises ranging from 1 percent to 2.75 percent, plus scheduled annual "steps," union and district officials say. This is well below the annual 3 percent to 3.5 percent hikes, plus steps, that were typical on the Island until the economic bust of a year ago.

 

No pacts in 18 districts

But harmony is not found everywhere. Against a backdrop of widespread voter discontent - as shown by the unexpectedly close election race for Nassau County executive in which school property taxes were a major issue - teachers in at least 18 districts are without contracts, and some are wearing black to classes or expressing displeasure in other ways.

Plainview-Old Bethpage parents complained some teacher job actions stepped over the line when they initially refused to decorate classrooms or write college recommendations for students.

Among the districts that recently signed new contracts calling for modest increases, Floral Park-Bellerose is the exception, with a pact which provides an initial salary boost of 3.5 percent, plus steps. Local school officials defend this on grounds that salaries there are relatively modest.

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Teacher representatives elsewhere say their intent is to preserve student services and save jobs of younger school staffers at a time of increasing financial peril for schools. Gov. David A. Paterson has called for more than $120 million in midyear state aid cuts for Island schools to help close a projected $3-billion state budget gap.

State lawmakers have so far balked at midyear cuts. But that could mean even deeper aid reductions next year, which could cause elimination of school offerings ranging from sports teams to advanced placement courses.

"Teachers, unions, are looking for labor peace, and they're realistic," said Jeff Rozran, president of Syosset's teacher union and a director of the statewide New York State United Teachers union. "Being realistic in the midst of a recession means they're going to moderate their demands."

Syosset's recent three-year contract extension provides annual raises of 2.75 percent plus steps, according to Rozran. Steps are the annual increases built into salary schedules until teachers reach top scale, typically 15 to 20 years. Union officials say they average 1.5 percent to 2 percent. Under Syosset's revised contract, teachers also give up some sick days and pay a higher share of health-insurance premiums.

Teacher raises continue to outpace those in the private sector, which averaged 1.2 percent this past year in the metropolitan area. But even some taxpayer groups hail the new agreements. One was in Sachem, which recently signed a four-year contract with raises ranging from 1.5 percent to 2.5 percent.

 

Sachem efforts praised

"In Sachem, the whole community - the school board, employees, taxpayers - has come together to achieve cooperation, without threats," said Fred Gorman, a local civic leader and founder of the regional Long Islanders for Educational Reform taxpayer group.

Although the teachers' job actions in Plainview-Old Bethpage have triggered rare public protests by parents, district officials say tempers appear to be cooling off. Still, parent volunteers at the district's kindergarten center last week sponsored an after-school Thanksgiving party for students, as a substitute for a traditional class-time celebration that wasn't held this year. Many parents blame the loss on what they say was teachers' refusal to participate.

"It was upsetting to hear that what I knew in the past was a special day, not only for my child, but for my entire family, was being taken away from us," said Judith Brenner, the mother of four students, including a kindergartner.

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Brenner quickly added that she remains satisfied with the quality of instruction provided her children.

 

Parent blames union

Another Plainview parent, Meredith Radisch, said, "There are a lot of teachers who just want to go about their business, but their union is making the calls."

Parents and district officials say the union wants the equivalent of a 4.25 percent raise next year, plus steps; the district is offering 2.5 percent, plus steps.

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Morton Rosenfeld, president of Plainview-Old Bethpage's teacher union, refused to discuss his bargaining position with a reporter last week. A union flier distributed to parents earlier this year says teachers don't expect significant economic gains, but "just don't want to fall further behind."

Public records tell a different story. According to the latest state figures, the median salary for Plainview-Old Bethpage teachers was $99,471 last year, compared to a Nassau County median of $91,073.

At the state level, teacher unions also face criticism they have pushed too hard - but on a different issue.

New York is competing with other states for $4.3 billion in federal Race to the Top money, which encourages educational innovation. Some critics, including groups often allied with teachers, say the powerful New York State United Teachers union has helped push through laws that could hurt the state's chances of winning its share of the funding.

One law limits the number of charter schools operating in the state. Another bans schools from using student test scores in deciding whether teachers qualify for job tenure. Both have drawn fire from aides to President Barack Obama.

NYSUT officials say a cap on charter schools promotes higher quality, and note that the ban on the use of test scores expires at the end of June - though state lawmakers could renew it. Washington is to announce the first wave of Race to the Top winners in April, and this makes some New York education experts nervous.

"I mean, there's a sense in some quarters that NYSUT has just gone too far," said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, a Manhattan-based group advocating for charter schools.