Pennsylvania School Board and Union negotiations

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School boards in the state of Pennsylvania are required to negotiate contracts with the local union that represents their districts' teachers. Pennsylvania Act 88 (1992) established the basic legal framework for collective bargaining in public education. Matters subject to bargaining include wages, hours, "other terms and conditions of employment," and the process by which disagreements on these issues will be resolved. School boards are not, however, required to negotiate "matters of inherent managerial policy." Examples include programs or course offerings, the overall district budget, use of technology, organizational structure, decisions on which individuals are hired and selection of supervisors. School district contracts typically remain in effect for 3-5 years. Contracts of seven years are also common.

Legislation, process, time lines

Claims & counter claims

Both school boards and teacher unions claim that their main goal is to provide, or maintain, a high-quality, affordable educational program. Most claims and counter-claims are variations on two themes.

Claims and counter-claims about compensation and program quality

In general boards and unions tend to agree on two premises:

  • Educational quality is depends largely on good teachers.
  • Attracting and retaining good teachers requires competitive compensation.

Disagreements tend to hinge on whether compensation is in fact competitive. (Union claim in parentheses.)

  • The compensation levels proposed by the board are competitive/(are not) competitive.
  • Therefore, in order to maintain a high-quality education program, the district need not increase/ (needs to increase) its proposed offer.

Appeals to public opinion on educational quality issues

Because of the differences between public and private employers, collective bargaining in the public sector resembles lobbying more than it resembles labor-management negotiations in the private sector. Like any private organization engaged in lobbying, a teacher union can be expected to seek concessions from public officials with the minimum degree of transparency required by law -- i.e., not to draw taxpayers' attention to the public cost of whatever private benefit is being sought. Whenever possible teacher unions and school boards hoping to maintain tranquil working relations with local union personnel emphasize only points that everyone can accept: that good teachers are vitally important and that they should be well paid, both as a matter of "fairness" and to enable the district to compete in the market for teaching talent. When agreements are reached, especially "early bird" agreements, public statements by boards and unions tend to stress these points -- and no others.

Disagreement is always possible, however, about whether a proposed compensation package is in fact competitive.

  • Unions often claim that their members are poorly paid compared to teachers in other districts. Comparisons may focus on districts immediately adjacent, those within a larger jurisdiction (county or Intermediate Unit), or if the negotiating union's members are already better paid than those nearby districts of comparable size elsewhere in the state. A board challenging these claims must decide whether the comparisons are relevant and whether they are accurate. This can be based on whether comparisons are taken from the same school year; whether they take into account benefits, etc.
  • Other possible board counter-claims may include the following: the district has no difficulty in hiring teachers; it hires from different geographical areas than the districts with which it is being compared (i.e., does not really compete with them); it has extremely low turnover rates. All of these assertions are questions of fact whose plausibility depends on empirical data.
  • Boards may also offer a counter-claim that teacher compensation is substantially higher than private-sector levels. Supporting this position will require relevant comparisons (e.g., with nurses in area hospitals) and adjustment for factors like days worked per year, benefit levels, job security, etc. The Bureau of Labor Statistics offers some relevant data. Local data is of course more pertinent but may be difficult to compile.[1]
  • A board may also claim that higher compensation for teachers will force cuts elsewhere in a budget, thus harming the district's educational program. (See "affordability" issues below.)

Claims and counter-claims about contract affordability

Expressed as a syllogism, "affordability" goes something like this. (Union position in parentheses.)

  • Paying higher salaries and benefits will require additional revenue or cost-cutting measures.
  • Raising additional revenue will require increasing taxes.
  • Increasing taxes is either an undue burden on taxpayers or proposed cost-cutting measures are not realistic.
  • Therefore, the proposed compensation package (is affordable)/is not affordable.

The first assertion is self-evident, unless the district expects a temporary windfall -- for example, from retirement by a number of highly paid teachers. The second (the necessity of raising taxes) may be either true or false. The third "undue burden" or "not realistically possible" can be evaluated by reference to data, but not conclusively proved.

In Pennsylvania about 60% of public school revenue is raised through local taxes, primarily property tax.[2] Tax rates are expressed in mills. A district may be able to raise additional revenue without raising tax rates because of increases in the value of a mill due to increases in the total value of real property (e.g., thanks to opening of a new shopping mall). By the same token, the value of a mill may decline (e.g., due to the loss of an existing industry).

Budget surplus argument

Unions may also claim that a board can afford a pay increase without a tax increase because of a recent budget surplus or large fund balance. This argument may be true but requires careful analysis. A budget surplus may be temporary (e.g., due to an unanticipated one-time grant) or almost an illusion (e.g., due to some change in state-mandated accounting procedures). A large fund balance does not necessarily represent a pool of spendable cash (e.g., may include noncollectable tax revenues that the district carries on its books as assets). At best, it is a non-recurring revenue source, available for no more than one budget.

Note that boards and unions may dispute whether various restricted accounts are actually needed. For example, if a board has shifted a large portion of a surplus in a "capital reserve" account earmarked for facilities maintenance, a union my claim that the board is "hiding money" that could be applied to teacher compensation without jeopardizing anything essential to district operations.

Tax increase argument

If a proposed contract seems certain to require a tax increase, board claims of an undue burden on taxpayers may be supportable by demographic data -- e.g., the percentage of taxpayers who are senior citizens on fixed income. A union counter-claim may allude to the district's tax effort, including comparisons with other districts' rates in equalized mills, which show tax rates as a percentage of the market value of real property, as distinct from its value as of the last time it was assessed by a county board.

Because of the passage of Pennsylvania Act 1 of 2006, boards may also claim that a proposed tax increase is not legally possible without submitting its budget to a back-end referendum. If voters reject the proposed increase, fulfilling the proposed contract would require cuts elsewhere in the budget -- damaging the district's educational program. As of 2009 Pennsylvania had almost no history of referenda of this kind, but unions are more likely to deny the necessity of a referendum than to assert that the proposed tax increase would actually be approved if a referendum were to be held.

Appeals to public opinion on affordability issues

Just as unions tend to enjoy a public relations advantage when the subject is the inherent importance of teachers, boards tend to enjoy an advantage when the subject is money. Therefore, unions tend to introduce affordability into a public relations campaign only under one or more of the following circumstances:

  • The district has a very large recent budget surplus or a large fund balance.
  • A high percentage of teachers are at or near retirement age, so that a district can rely on savings from attrition to lower costs for at least the near future.
  • The board has recently approved some expense item unpopular with large segments of the public (e.g., artificial turf for an athletic field) that can be pointed to as evidence that the board has misplaced its financial priorities.

Boards are likely to claim that a proposed contract is unaffordable if they perceive the district to be facing real financial hardship (e.g., because of declining millage value or the alleged extravagance of a preceding board) or when they have specific alternative needs for funds (e.g., construction of a new school due to increased enrollments).


Non-financial contract issues

Wages and benefits (primarily healthcare and pensions) account for almost all of the direct dollar cost of any labor contract. However, contracts cover a wide range of other issues whose financial impacts are indirect, minimal or uncertain. Some, like contract duration, are inherent A partial list of such issues follows.

External links

References