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Editorial: A creative plan for tax-cap school costs

Rocky Point School District Superintendent Dr. Michael Ring.

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

The new Rocky Point teacher contract seems like a step toward rationality in negotiating public contracts. Salary increases in the last five years of the nine-year deal are tied directly to the state's cap on property tax increases in a way that limits those contractual raises to a maximum of 1 percent a year. That appears to be a first in the state and is a promising development.

But the devil in public union deals is almost always in the details, and there is one lurking here, too: Rocky Point's teachers still get their step increases.

These essentially are annual raises for longevity. After two years of negotiations, Rocky Point managed to eliminate two of the 28 steps. That still leaves 26 steps -- guaranteed raises every year for the first 26 years of employment. Last year, step increases in Rocky Point averaged 2.66 percent. When combined with the contractual increase, the real raises received by teachers will average more than 3 percent in each of the final seven years of the new contract. With the ability to raise revenue limited by the tax cap, Rocky Point officials acknowledge trouble for the district if state aid does not increase by 4 percent per year. That's ominous for Rocky Point, because continual 4 percent annual increases from Albany are not likely. And that means it's ominous for the rest of Long Island, too, because Rocky Point's step numbers are pretty typical for the region.

Salary increases and health care contributions draw the lion's share of attention during contract negotiations. Districts have every right to trumpet progress on those fronts. But step increases remain the great hidden challenge facing those who negotiate teacher contracts. The steps are protected by the Triborough Amendment, a piece of state legislation that requires public employers to maintain the terms of an expired contract until a new one is negotiated. Step increases are the reason many unions have been in no rush to settle contracts -- the raises just keep coming. When school district officials plead for relief from spending controlled by the state, step increases often are the target. Lawmakers are reluctant to overturn Triborough because of pressure from teacher unions. Teacher unions are understandably loath to give up things they have bargained for over the last 30 years.

There has been some tinkering with steps here and there in Long Island school districts -- a temporary freeze, a partial reduction for a year or two, having them take effect in the middle of the year rather than at the beginning. But there have been no major inroads, no big new transformative ideas.

Rocky Point negotiators certainly deserve credit for their idea of linking salary increases to the tax cap starting in 2015. In that sense, the tax cap is functioning as its proponents said it would, as a damper on rapidly rising salaries. But the cap has yet to have a significant impact on step increases, which are entrenched in teacher contracts and continue to cost taxpayers dearly.

Rocky Point has nibbled at the issue by eliminating two steps. That's a start. With teachers in 37 Long Island public school districts now working under the terms of expired contracts, will anyone follow?