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August 24, 2004

Rhode Island's Elite

David Sweeney, a retired lawyer with 30 years of experience negotiating teachers' contracts, has responded to a piece by retired teacher James Hosey, in which Mr. Hosey lamented that teachers' employment packages fall far short of the deals offered to — get this — CEOs. Putting aside the ludicrous comparison of, essentially, the educational workforce with the top, top class of the business world, Mr. Sweeney writes:

I don't know where Mr. Hosey worked, but every Rhode Island contract I know of contained "step increases" over 10 or 12 years. Teachers received an increase in pay for each credit earned toward an advanced degree, in courses paid for by the school districts. The workday consisted of less than seven hours, of which no more than four hours were spent in actually teaching. The work year was, and is, 180 days, and anything over that required additional compensation. Paid sick leave increased every year, and, amazingly, sick days taken by teachers also increased every year. Retirement, as taken by Mr. Hosey, was a combination of age and years worked, which permitted teachers to retire in their 50s and early 60s. ...

Former teachers who enter the real work world from the warm womb of the education industry are consistently shocked by the work demands of employers who must compete to survive. Unfortunately, these same people are teaching our children that everyone is "entitled" to all the benefits of a comfortable life, from annual pay increases to lifetime health care, without regard to individual talent or effort.

Hosey's home district, Cumberland, apparently has a relatively weak union, by Rhode Island standards. Consider these items from the personal experience that Hosey offers as "a point-by-point refutation" of a July 24 piece by Donald Hawthorne:

-- I was a teacher for 30 years; in that time, I never came close to a 12-percent raise.

-- There were no automatic increases in pay; our union had to fight tooth-and-nail for each contract as September approached, and the school committee relied upon Superior Court to order us back to work without one.

-- I never saw a longevity bonus.

One might note that the plea that the union had to "fight tooth-and-nail" for raises sidesteps Hawthorne's point, which had to do with the "just for showing up" nature of the raises that teachers do get every year, whatever show the union puts on. Marc Comtois, who is now the parent of a child in the Warwick, Rhode Island, school system, breaks down the numbers in table format.

As Marc explains, at least in Warwick, the annual raises scheduled within a given contract are deceptive, because each "step" — with advancement occurring each year, without regard to merit — increases annually. So, for example, while a first-time teacher for the 2000–2001 school year was scheduled to go from $30,348 to $33,467 (a very healthy 10% raise) for the next year, that teacher actually went to $34,722 (14.4%), because Step 2 increased. Marc also notes that, unlike Hosey's employer, his town does offer longevity bonuses, in addition to other merit-based increases.

More stunning, however, is Marc's side-by-side comparison of teachers' salaries with private-sector salaries. The disparity is huge, of itself, but compared with the national average, a visual representation makes for an extremely disheartening image for a semi-employed private-sector Rhode Islander such as myself. Note that, for the following graph, I dug up the 2002 data for the private sector (PDF) and the 2002–2003 data for teachers (USA and RI), which actually presents an improvement from Marc's previous-year data.

As Marc gives reason to realize, with his comparison of Rhode Island with its two contiguous states, Massachusetts and Connecticut, this chart isn't anywhere near the whole story. Rhode Island's tax burden and cost of living are high, relative to the rest of the country. As a percentage of income, Rhode Islanders pay 1.4% more in total state, federal, and local taxes than the nation as a whole. As for cost of living, I looked at one tangible expense, annual homeowner costs, for which Rhode Islanders pay 10.75% more than the nation as a whole. (Unfortunately, the latest data that I could find for housing was for 2000, and house prices have skyrocketed since then, doubling or more in some areas.) Here's a very rough picture of all of the above information lumped together:

The colored wedges, in total, represent the average Rhode Island private sector income (wages = $33,240). The white wedge is the actual-dollar amount of money that the average RI teacher has left over after taxes and housing above and beyond what the average private sector Rhode Islander has left over ($21,868 – $8,376 = $13,492).* In short, from this rough, limited picture, it looks as if the average Rhode Island teacher could almost afford to pay one additional family's housing costs, including mortgage, for the entire year and still have Rhode Island's average remainder left over. Here's the comparable pie graph for the nation as a whole.

And even that isn't the whole story. Rhode Island teachers get fantastic benefits, including absolutely free healthcare, on top of the career perk of a 180-day work year. (I don't know what the private sector's average work year is, but I'd be surprised if it weren't at least 220 days.) No wonder our retired teacher, Mr. Hosey, proclaims:

I would put my own head in a noose before I would ever again work in a non-union environment.

Unfortunately, as valuable and noble as the teaching profession may be, public union workers' employment packages have to find their funds somewhere, and in Rhode Island, that means hanging the rest of us.

* For the average teacher's remainder, I did remember to calculate and subtract the relatively higher tax slice, although I treated it as a flat tax.

Posted by Justin Katz at August 24, 2004 11:16 AM
Rhode Island

Great article. I'm a former teacher (private school) and I wholeheartedly agree that the issue here is *entitlement*.

Teachers being paid on the same scale as CEO's. Please. Because they are entrusted with the welfare of our future. Geez, I thought parents were. What about day care providers Shouldn't they earn 100k for what responsibility they have ?

The truth is that the benefits in the public sector are unheard of in the private sector - and that is part of the problem with funding our schools. Now, of course the same can be said of other public sector jobs such as the military and even politicians. So this 'entitlement' view isn't unique to people in education or even by political affiliation.

It is human nature to get the most for the least. Buy low. Sell high. That doesn't mean that it should be legitimized by law or is some kind of ideological 'high-ground'. That is what burns me up - when supporters of big government cry over support of the success big businesses.

The truth is that fraud and excesses exist in both - because greed and evil exists in people not institutions.

Posted by: Mark Miller at August 24, 2004 12:12 PM

Good job enhancing my original post! Thanks for the updated info and for the pretty pictures ;)

Posted by: Marc Comtois at August 24, 2004 2:51 PM

As a parent in the Warwick system for the last two years, and also being a new resident of Rhode Island - I am so angry at this stalled contract for the Warwick school district. We came from Brainerd, Minnesota and a wonderful school system where I knew teachers were not paid enough. My sister, a 30 year teaching veteran in the St. Paul school system is not paid enough. I hear about her union battles and have always cheered her efforts on.

But out here in Rhode Island? I am nothing short of disgusted. As we moved here, my son was at a great neighborhood school. The first argument I had was him, as a 9 year old - being made to WALK to school. There was not enough budget for transportation. Next was the odd thing that he didn't have books for all subjects in the second half of fourth grade and all of fifth grade in the first school (Wyman). He got copies of pages from the book to bring home for homework. They couldn't let the books out of the classroom. Why? No money to spare! Fortunately, the principal at his school, and the teaching staff were bucking the pressure the union was putting on them. Despite less PhyEd, Music, Art, Science time (which is a crime in itself), my son had a great school experience at Wyman.

This year, for 6th grade, we moved to the Hoxie neighborhood with the purchase of our first home in Rhode Island. We'd always been owners in MN, but took a year and a half here to find where we wanted to live. And - what we could afford. The article above highlighted greatly the outrageous housing costs in RI. As little as 4 years ago, this same house we bought would have sold for $80,000-$85K. We bought it for $189K. One bathroom, one small garage (and if you can find a house with an attached garage for that price, good luck!) at 950sq feet. This same money in Brainerd would have gotten us a 4-5 bed/4 bath house with double attached garage on half an acre! In fact, we sold our Baxter home to move here with just those specs (2700sq feet) to move out here for a better job for my husband.

In this new neighborhood, sandwiched between two deadly streets (Warwick Ave and West Shore/Airport road) I had to actually negotiate that my kid get on a bus to make it safely to and from school. It wasn't a forgone conclusion. With the Warwick teacher contracts in year two of the battle, the largest argument being benefits, the union has envoked a WORK TO RULE ethic. You get nothing past work hours in being able to work with teachers for your child. Tonight, there is a school open house, but no teachers will be there. I will say that the Principal is a hard working woman who is trying to get the most for her children within a messed up system. Most teachers would capitulate to negotiating in reality, but they are hostage to the union leadership.

Here's how it affects us on a daily basis - last year, school lunch was $1.85. This year, it went up to $2.00 a lunch. ELEMENTARY school lunch. My son, who is not overweight and does like fresh fruit and veg (okay, he's not average) tells me that this year, costing more, school portions are LESS than last year. And, that there is rarely a piece of fresh fruit to be offered. The menus are not all that balanced, but little kids are picky so they have to do something to get them fed. But less for more seems to be the Warwick school district theory. It goes for lunch as well as subjects beyond math and reading.

Of all the insults in not being able to get a ratified contract executed, I think the thing that makes me most upset is the benefits packages. In MN we owned our own small business. We had a 5 person set up and we got health coverage for us and our 3 employees. It nearly killed us, but we covered 50% of their premiums. In all the overhead of owning our own business, it nearly killed us with stress. Part of the reason we moved out here was that my husband could earn what he was actually worth out here with the RI job. He's a highly skilled foreign auto mechanic. Auto industry has always paid workers, no matter how good they are, on a FLAT LABOR HOUR. It's just how it is. This company we moved for offered great benefits. My husband is full time, he'll put in a 10-12 hour day if that's what the work load needs in a day. AND STILL - do WE get FREE health and dental? OH HELL NO! We pay $106.00 a WEEK for coverage in our family of three in health, $23 a week for dental. That probably is the story for most of you reading these articles. You work, if you get benefits, you pay in. We gripe about it, but that's how it is. No one really expects to get it for free. And - if you want a real scary story, check out the corrupt way BC/BS of RI has operated and the scandals coming out of that whole deal. Corruption in RI is a spectator sport, I don't know who said it, but it is the truth.

The teachers contract debacle in Warwick's district is one tiny piece of the union graft allowed out here, yet, it is big in our lives as it affects us every day this contract is not settled. And if the teacher's union gets their way, my taxes and my son's education will continue to be much less for much higher cost.

I came from a state of mind where I always cheered for Union. I came from MN where I saw what Northwest Airlines did to their unions. I saw the lies and cheating from the company.

Now - living out here, I am no longer a fan of unions. Not in this particular environment.

Posted by: SJLegge at November 15, 2004 1:02 PM