Dobie: Downside of automatic teacher pay raises

A budget vote reminder sits on the Belmont

A budget vote reminder sits on the Belmont Elementary School property in West Babylon on May 19, 2014. (Credit: Johnny Milano)

Michael Dobie

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday Michael Dobie

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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What have I done?

I've been asking myself that a lot, after I did something for the first time since I moved to Long Island 24 years ago.

I voted against a school budget.

Until this year, I never had rejected a budget proposed by my district, West Babylon. Do it for the kids, right? But this time the district was pitching to pierce its 1.36 percent state tax cap by well more than double -- in a year when taxpayers will receive state rebate checks for their tax increases when their districts stay within the cap.

So I said no, as did enough other voters to defeat the budget. My hope was that West Babylon would then turn to its teachers union -- personnel costs are the bulk of every school budget -- to get the savings needed to stay within the cap for the budget revote to take place June 17.

Instead, the district killed the high school bowling, gymnastics, swimming and golf teams, eliminated a bunch of clubs and activities at all grade levels, and fired 18 part-time hall monitors, among other things.

Officials saved $1.3 million and got within the cap, but look at the cost. Kids lost teams and clubs, and adults lost jobs.

I'm not naive -- this is usually the way such things work out. But this is my first personal experience with the consequences of voting against a budget, and it's distressing.

It turns out the administration didn't believe it could ask teachers for concessions because two years ago, the union agreed to open its contract and spread out one 2.3 percent salary increase over three years. That helped the district in another difficult budget year.

But the teachers have continued to get step increases -- essentially, annual longevity raises. West Babylon's teachers are due an average 3.25 percent step increase next year, which, combined with the 0.75 salary increase, means they'll get a 4 percent raise. Who gets a 4 percent raise these days?

Please understand, this is not a screed against teachers. It's an argument against an unsustainable system.

Because West Babylon's teachers are not alone. The tax cap has tamped down contractual salary increases in many districts, but often not step increases.

Central Islip's teachers are getting a 5 percent step boost next year, while Hauppauge, Smithtown, Westbury, Sayville and Middle Country are among those getting nearly 3 percent, or more. Combined with contractual increases, the hikes often reach 4 percent.

Attorney Gregory J. Guercio, whose firm represents more than 40 districts, says increases of 2.5 percent or more likely consume the entire tax increase a district is allowed to levy. Districts made the untenable math work this year thanks to a generous election-year dollop of state aid (though West Babylon seemed to get short shrift).

There has been progress here and there on reining in steps. Most notably, Kings Park just completed a deal that freezes steps for three full years.

More of that is needed, something West Babylon Superintendent Anthony Cacciola says is discussed regularly among his peers. But movement is difficult since step increases continue even when a contract ends, thanks to a state law called the Triborough Amendment (more on that in a future column).

"Automatic steps," Cacciola said, "are frustrating."

No one is saying teachers don't deserve any pay raises. But the days are long gone when their salaries were not competitive and people had to be enticed into the profession. The system must be changed.

Or a lot more people like me are going to be apologizing to a lot more students like the kids in West Babylon for taking their opportunities away.

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.