08 April Update: I have received a much-appreciated letter from a local acquaintance penned in response to these discussions. It appears in its entirety at the end of this entry.
Main Article: After first printing an op-ed piece challenging me directly to explain further my previously printed views (1, 2, 3, 4) on local funding of Time, Responsibility and Incentive (TRI) stipends (1, 2), the Whidbey News Times editor replied to my timely submission of a 450-word retort via email, telling me “I’m burned out on the subject right now” and suggested “Why don’t you save this and send it in just before they set the levy date, or perhaps sometime between then and the election? It would have more impact then.” Really, Mr. Editor?
So, in other words, just one week before a local levy committee has been planning to “wrap” its recommendations for an upcoming M&O levy for Oak Harbor in early 2013, and after you wrote an Editorial titled “Voter education key to next levy”, you “burned out”? Or, was the timely idea of actually suggesting that the voters be given an opportunity to be heard directly on this issue simply too much of an “education”?
The issue of TRI is not overly complicated, but it’s an issue that, up until now, has only typically only been discussed at the state level or behind closed-door negotiations between the local Washington Education Association affiliates, school boards and school districts. Essentially, local teachers’ unions collectively bargain for as much local pay-padding (called TRI Days) as they think they can extract from the local operating budgets of their school district. That money comes from local discretionary spending, such as Maintenance and Operations (M&O) levy dollars or, in the case of some school districts like Oak Harbor, some or all TRI may come from Federal Impact Aid.
When school districts ask voters for M&O levy dollars from the property owners, those resolutions can either be generic (e.g. “for schools”), or they can be very specific (e.g. to fund five special education teachers), but, despite whatever rhetoric is used during an M&O levy campaign, most ALL resolutions are written such that the school district can really use the money any way it wants to do so, based on changing priorities. What I suggest is: no ambiguity. Make it crystal clear on the the ballot resolution that this money would be for TRI (teacher pay padding) and NOTHING ELSE.
When school districts receive Federal Impact Aid, voters are typically NEVER asked directly how to spend that money. Oak Harbor School District gets a rather significant amount of Federal Impact Aid, and it can be used for just about anything at the local level.
Here’s my position on the 2013 M&O levy and TRI:
- Whatever dollar amount of TRI the teachers’ union wants each year for TRI, ask for that money from the voters directly via a wholly separate M&O levy ballot resolution item.
- Starting with the M&O levy “renewal” in 2013, ask the voters directly for the full amount of TRI the teachers desire from the start of that levy-funded period until the next M&O levy “renewal”.
- State this proposal to the voters clearly as to the actual amount of dollars desired for each year – not just as some estimated “tax rate”. (e.g. year 1: $1.6 million; year 2, $1.8 million, year 3: $1.9 million, etc.)
- Be sure that all teachers’ union members, the school district, the school board, and all folks running the M&O levy campaign understand what TRI is, where the money comes from, and what else it COULD be used for.
- Fund a VOTERS GUIDE that is MAILED to each voter. Let someone like me write the “con” statement against the proposal.
- If the voters still say “yes”, the public really can’t complain too much about not “enough” money for other thnigs in the budget after that, and teachers get all the TRI they believe they deserve.
- If the voters say “no”, those existing dollars (which are presently actually ALREADY IN the budget as either M&O levy dollars or as Federal Impact Aid dollars – but which are “walled off” from the voters) then become completely available for anything else in the budget. As a result of rejection at the polls for this resolution, the teachers get zero TRI until they can “try” again at the next M&O levy renewal.
What could be more fair than this?
Instead, now, local newspapers like the Whidbey News Times literally run DOZENS of articles that are allegedly about the levy, but perennially fail (refuse?) to educate voters about how TRI is actually extracted from local discretionary spending. Then, when levy time comes around, nary a word about how much TRI is already being extracted or is planned to be extracted simply to pad local salaries is explained to the voters.
If teachers really think they deserve TRI and even MORE TRI, let’s be bold about the issue! School boards: take the issue of TRI DIRECTLY to the voters at EACH M&O levy renewal.
My rejected 450-word reply submission to the Whidbey News Times is as follows:
If teachers and their union really believe they deserve TRI, put all TRI “on the line” as a completely separate ballot resolution item in 2013. If it fails, you forever forfeit all TRI, to the kids.
In a recent SoundOff, a teacher trio asks “Why is it that in our society, we believe in competitive pay in business and industry, but not necessarily in our schools?” The short, partial answer is: K-12 functions as a non-competitive monopoly allowing zero competition.
The trio next asks: “Mr. Bill Burnett’s recent Sound Off advocates cutting teachers’ pay to the point that Oak Harbor would be the lowest paying school district in the state. Does he really think that makes for better schools?”
To the first part: 16% of WA school districts pay zero TRI, yet those teachers still get the same generous $25 to $47 hourly salaries which the teachers’ union specifies they earn here.
To the second part, the answer is “yes”. The current salary and TRI structure actually prevents school districts from hiring the best and brightest teachers. A better approach is a WA State 2008 Basic Education Finance Joint Task Force recommendation: “Repeal the TRI law” and make it so that “All salary is subject to bargaining”. The current TRI structure neither allows for bonuses to reward effectiveness nor for more salary to better attract teachers for hard-to-staff subjects and schools. Regarding that competitive pay question; it’s the teachers’ union – not society – which fantasizes that the same salary and local TRI for everyone will somehow attract the best and brightest. If that were true, the best and brightest teach only in Arlington or Seattle school districts.
The question this trio should have asked: “Does he really think that (no TRI) would be better for the kids?” Again, the answer is “yes”. Consider this: an OHEA member survey asked teachers to swap some TRI-Days for more classroom teachers. 95.4% checked “Absolutely not; keep your hands off of my money!” Another survey proposed: “Teachers have been criticized for their TRI pay. Six TRI days would pay for a K-12 textbook adoption and reduce the average teacher’s pay about $1,800 per year. In these trying times, should we temporarily suspend some of our TRI to pay for other needs?” 92.4% said “no”. This trio proclaims “we provide far less to our students than other military communities”, while local teachers resoundingly voted “no” to helping this military community’s kids!
Let’s ask voters via a completely separate ballot resolution for millions in Federal Impact Aid or levy dollars specifically for TRI instead of more teachers or kids’ textbooks. I believe a majority of society will say “no” to TRI when asked directly.
08 April Update:
Here is the much-appreciated letter-to-the-editor an acquaintance sent me after penning a submission to the Whidbey News Times in response to these discussions:
“I married into a family of teachers, so all-in all, I’m on their side. What I know and hear about the teachers leading the choir, culinary arts and robotics programs is out-standing and I think the community is both lucky and pleased to have such talent and devotion. However, there are statements in their Sound Off (3/31/12) pertaining to the levy and Mr. Burnett’s article (3/16/12) that should be addressed.
The teachers said Mr. Burnett was wrong when he stated that the “large tracts of federal land in the OHSD make each levy and bond more expensive for local property owners. Federal Impact Aid offsets those costs…” The teachers interpreted his remark as a comparison with other districts — as evidenced by their response that the OH levy was one of the lowest in the State. If they read Mr. B’s remark more carefully, they would realize he was only explaining how federal lands affect the levy. In that context his statement was correct, he was not wrong.
The teachers claimed there were a “few examples of Burnett being wrong” — only two were mentioned in their article — the second being that Mr. B. said that the OH levey was “about average” — I could find no such specific statement in his article, nor could I find any other examples to account for the “few”.
The teachers pointed out that the cost per student in OH is $600 below the State average. Years ago, I had occasion to compare levies by District. I found that levies were significantly correlated with the size of the Districts, hence the average for all districts is not as meaningful as averages for schools of comparable size. … the use of a state-wide average is not a realistic measure — its like adding apples and oranges.
The interest that this troika of teachers has in salaries and other benefits is no different than people involved in other jobs and the description of their efforts and “un-paid overtime” is part and parcel of other professions as well as teaching. Indeed, the three may be exceptional in the hours they work and it is well to inform the public. I only suggest that they be more meticulous in interpreting others comments and give consideration to the need for someone like Mr. Burnett to take a broader look at the financial matters of the OHSD and the decisions of the Oak Harbor School Board.”
Tags: Federal Impact Aid, Island Politics, Jim Larsen, Joint Task Force on Basic Education, K-12 Finance, Maintenance and Operations (M&O) levy, Oak Harbor Education Association (OHEA), Oak Harbor School District (OHSD), School Levy, Time Responsibility Incentive (TRI), TRI-Days, TRI-Pay, Washington State, Whidbey News Times