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Editorial: Sign of rationality in LI teacher contracts

This is a first-grade classroom at Branch Brook

This is a first-grade classroom at Branch Brook Elementary School in Smithtown at the end of the day Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

The new pact between the Port Jefferson school district and its teachers union is a modest step forward for taxpayers and continues fitful progress being made across Long Island toward contract sanity in the era of the state tax cap.

The four-year deal includes a salary freeze in the first year and then three 1 percent hikes, as well as an increase in teacher contributions to health care premiums -- all good developments. The contract also pares down step increases, annual longevity raises that add greatly to the cost of contracts. The Port Jefferson deal calls for one full step increase, followed by two half-step increases and one freeze. Teachers will receive bonuses in years two and three instead, but those payments will not be added to their base pay and will slow overall salary growth.

The four-year savings total $850,000 over an extension of the current contract. That's important because the district must be careful not to get stuck with unaffordable contracts -- its revenue could plummet if the Long Island Power Authority wins a tax grievance in which it claims its local power plant is overassessed, or if the plant is closed.

Tax-cut advocates have targeted teachers for years, arguing that the contracts of the past are unsustainable today. But it is impossible -- and unfair to teachers -- to right-fit the system in one fell swoop. Progress will be gradual but it must be sustained.

Some Long Island districts have succeeded in slowing the growth of salaries. Some unions have taken pay freezes, some for multiple years. Many now contribute to their benefits. A few have compromised on steps. There still is a long way to go. But the Port Jefferson deal suggests we're moving in the right direction.