I want to offer some clarification on comments that the district has budgeted increases for its employees at 4% and 5% and the suggestion that teachers have seen this level of salary increase in the past 4 to 6 years. It was also suggested that if the district did not follow through on giving this budgeted raise, there would be more than enough money to protect the jobs and programs being cut. The suggestion is that if the district budgeted less money for their employees, they could save teacher positions. First of all, this confuses the budget and negotiation process. The budget lays out a plan based on best assessments of what is going to happen. ‘Negotiations’ is a process protected by PELRA and the district must prepare by best guess for an uncertain outcome from that process. It does not commit the district to a settlement but allows for costs as they can best be predicted. So what the budget reflects and what is actually paid out are different.
I know from my experience as a union negotiator that the 4% and 5% increases in the past budgets are not teacher salary increases, but are the estimated combined costs to the district of aquite complicated agreement package of lane changes and contracted salary increases. These costs also include insurance increases that have frequently been double-digit percentage increases. In short, the term “increase” includes both salary cost and benefit cost that the district predicts it will spend.
Inflation has risen between 2.5 and 3.5% each of the past 4 years. Minnesota teacher salaries, ranked 14 nationally in 1990, have now fallen to 19th in the nation, $1,146 annually below the national average. In 1992, Minnesota ranked 9th in the nation in K-12 education spending per $1,000 of personal income; by 2002 our state had fallen to 27th place our costs shrinking in comparison to others. School employee health insurance this year is expected to cost $765 million.
In the last contract negotiation two years ago, the teachers’ union and district agreed to a salary increase of 1% the first year and 3% increase the next. Most of the increase was eaten up by the insurance increase in the first year so that some teachers saw little if any net gain in their take home pay, at a time when Americans are experiencing 3%+ annual cost of living increases. This is where most of the “teacher increases” have been going the past 4-5 years. The “salary” increases just barely keep up with out of control insurance costs.
In decisions of this nature, everything has a context. I know that some people have lost their jobs, for many pay rates are stagnant, and many are not seeing wage increases as they see their local taxes and fees go up. This is why I argue for a hard look at how tax burdens are distributed, and arranged for a recent presentation by Growth & Justice on this point. Low and middle income workers are over burdened by taxes and upper income received tax adjustments, which lowered their over all tax rate. If we want to continue the competitive edge Minnesota has had, we need to invest in education and infrastructure, not cut as we are doing. The money must come from some where, and an educated population benefits all of us, so I don’t think it’s too much to ask those who benefit most from our society to contribute as well. We need a progressive tax system that asks everyone to contribute according to their ability to pay.
The School District must weigh costs of maintaining programs and the cost of maintaining a quality staff and decide to pay the cost or forgo programs and staff. This is not an easy analysis and presents painful “choices” under current conditions where schools are not adequately funded. Compromise is necessary to move forward in this environment, and that’s what has happened in the teacher-district negotiations. This same mode of compromise must occur in other budgetary areas, and unfortunately, we in Northfield will be experiencing some dramatic changes in our schools because of the externally mandated cuts and a limited process to address the shortfalls. Adequate funding is necessary, and we don’t have that the funding we need in Northfield or in Minnesota.
We urgently need vocal and active support in the legislature to maintain our schools. Track our elected officials’ votes at www.minnesotavotes.org and contact them to let them know your thoughts about funding education and that you remember their promises.