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LETTER: Reader Strongly Disagrees with Letter from the BOS

Response to the Board of Selectmen letter regarding teacher negotiations.

 

Dear Editor,

After reading a letter , I felt the need to speak out on a few points.

"The Board of Selectmen is disappointed that negotiations between the School Committee and the WEA (teachers’ union) have broken down. The Board remains supportive of the School Committee’s resolve to protect jobs and to preserve educational programming"

The problem is that our elected officials aren’t supporting the protection of jobs. They’re supporting shortsighted spending. The jobs were hired with temporary money. The money goes away and now teachers and other town employees are expected to pay for it? Those jobs are the ones we should be protecting. 

"The Board is disheartened by the WEA’s apparent unwillingness to appreciate these difficult fiscal times. The WEA continues to demand two years of step increases for teachers. It has rejected multiple counterproposals offered by the School Committee. And, it is their refusal to move off this demand that has led to the current impasse. Simply put, the WEA’s uncompromising demand that teachers receive two years of step increases is not possible given the Town’s current financial resources without significantly impacting programs and services."

On page 43 of the 2010 Town Report, the Selectmen said, "Westford didn’t just survive the monumental challenges of 2009, we thrived. And so with great confidence and optimism, the Board looks forward to 2010."

They were downright proud themselves. The economy didn't seem to be hitting Westford so hard.  What happened in a year that we went from thriving to the brink of collapse? 

The teachers have been very willing. The School Committee's selection of what to put in print as "offers" is very self-serving. Our elected officials continue to say they are demanding two years steps and it's false.

They want to return to normal steps next year. Meaning they are willing to skip a year, but not willing to be held back a year for the rest of their career. Every time they put in print they are demanding two years steps they’re doing the town and the very teachers whose jobs they said they’re concerned about protecting a disservice. 

A town is a business.  If you want to save money you may have to cut services. That's just life.  I feel for the people who may be laid off, I’ve been there.  But layoffs are not something the teachers caused and isn’t something they can solve.

Westford may have to do without trash pickup like many other towns did long ago. What would that save you, $1.5 million? Trash pickup for even the largest of families can be gotten for $160 a year, less for a typical size family; I looked into it. Waste not Want not is the name of the company who can do it for that price. (I have no affiliation with them whatsoever)

72 percent of Westford makes as much or more than teachers and that's using the average teacher salary. 65 percent of Westford makes twice as much or more.

Why is $160 considered unaffordable for a median $130,000 a year family, but $1,700 for teachers making $65,000 considered acceptable?

Our elected officials keep presenting the teachers as unreasonable, Westford can do without trash pickup, considering how expensive it is, and that doesn’t seem unreasonable.

"The WEA’s demand also goes well beyond agreements reached with other Town unions. The Town has settled five union contracts. Each of these unions, recognizing the difficult fiscal times the Town is operating in, agreed to no cost of living increase for fiscal years 2012 and 2013 and no step increases in fiscal year 2012. In a show of good faith to those unions who agreed to forego step increases this year, the Town agreed to a re-opener provision that may be triggered if the Town negotiates base wage increases for fiscal years 2012 or 2013 with any other Town union. If the Town had to fund such increases, it would have to lay off employees, cut services and eliminate programs."

This is so utterly dishonest and without context it makes me nauseous.  Please just answer some very simple questions about the already "settled" contracts from these reasonable people.

1. What are the educational requirements for those jobs in town? An average degree needed to go into teaching costs about $70,000, if you do it cheaply. 

2. What is the average starting salary of those town employees? Teachers start at $42,000 a year, while firemen start at $58,000 without having to pay off student loans and working fewer days than teachers. Is educating children somehow less noble?

I’d be pretty ticked off if I was a teacher and saw the office workers’ contract.

Many other positions in town require no education, get paid double on Sundays, paid overtime over 40 hours, paid holidays, earlier & larger longevity pay, gas stipends, some even get paid lunches.

3. How many years are other unions’ steps stretched out over? I’ve seen as little as five and eight is common, but with teachers it is 14, and this offer would make it 15. With these facts in mind, how can one possibly consider teachers wanting to stay at 14 unreasonable?

4. How many of those "good faith" employees are already at top pay?

Considering they attain top pay in a half or third of the time it’s probably significant.  If most teachers were near the top steps, they’d probably be willing to forego increases, but they aren’t. They have mortgages, kids, taxes and expenses just like anybody else. They don’t live in a bubble.

5. How will future steps for these new hires be more affordable than steps for the existing teachers?

Layoffs are a fact of life. Teachers aren’t going to stop it. We’re overstaffed, we either need to increase revenue or decrease staff. That is a very simple business principle that you can’t avoid. It’s not the other teachers’ fault that the School Department hired 25 people with nearly $1 million in temporary money.

Even if the teachers conceded to everything the School Committee wanted, it’s still unsustainable all you are doing is creating an even more unsustainable future.

6. What or where are the new mandates requiring all these positions?  I’m asking sincerely as I’d like to read them but I’m unable to find anything new.

"The Board also must correct recent misrepresentations made by the President of the WEA. Contrary to her statement that the teachers have accepted “major concessions” in health care benefits, the recent switch by the Town from Blue Cross/Blue Shield to Tufts Health Care has resulted in employee savings of $275 to $925 in premiums depending upon the particular health insurance program an employee chooses while maintaining current benefit levels. Retirees save $1500 in their premiums and a wider scope of benefits is available to them. Notably, the co-pay for office visits has stayed at $5.00!"

It saved a bit of money for a year, but what is it going to cost next year? Tufts wanted the contract so they give us deal for a year to get it; now the town is at their mercy. And yes it is a concession to alter insurance they were happy with to save the town money, that’s what concession means.  But there is no appreciation shown, not mentioning in that paragraph that it saved the town money. I also wonder if one would readily advertise the co-pay and like increases.

"The WEA has stated that it remains open to mediation. The Board hopes that after a cooling off period, negotiations can resume. We value our teachers and their dedication and commitment to Westford’s students. We recognize the time and effort they put in to educating our children. We hope that a fair contract can be reached within the bounds of the Town’s fiscal resources."

Why are other towns able to remain competitive while Westford can't even hit "average" compensation?

We’re one of the wealthiest towns, with high achieving, low dollar using teachers.

This can't be blamed on the economy as it has hit every town, in fact it has hit Westford proportionately less according to income and employment statistics.

This is from one of the School Committee's releases

Compensation Issue

Year One (2011-12)

Year Two (2012-13)

Salary step increases

Freeze at 2010-11 level

Return to step increases: step increases average 3.39 percent annually based on the 2010-11 contract

The total amount of teachers’ salaries for 2010-2011 in Westford was $24.753,858 according to a spreadsheet provided by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

School Committee chairwoman Angela Harkness . I used the larger figure. Step increases would average 2.322 percent.  I can’t reverse math my way into that 3.39 figure no matter what I do. Even combining the years, adding new hires, subtracting new hires.  It’s possible I’m calculating something wrong if so I’m curious what it is.  But if I’m not shouldn’t a correction be printed?

Let’s start telling the truth, the whole truth.  The town continues to misrepresent, leave out context and otherwise treat teachers like they are disposable, living the high life or as a problem when in fact they are one of the town’s largest assets.  I would not call that “valuing” our teachers.

The financial advantage is already not on the town’s side. Treating teachers this way removes any incentive to stay.  Teachers will leave; it's an unavoidable fact. And who will we attract after that?  Only teachers that could be considered the bottom of the barrel, or the most desperate.

Westford can’t keep its elite status after that, once schools go, everything else will. A municipality is a delicate balance and schools hold a lot of that weight.

There are some very simple solutions to the problem that should be considered. Nix trash removal. Stop hiring new positions, especially for new projects and previously unfilled positions we were doing fine without. Get rid of two professional development days. That almost covers the town’s 2014 shortfall.

There are a number of rather simple solutions to the problem; the town just doesn't want to do them. Our public officials want the teachers to bail us out. I talk to people in Chelmsford, Littleton, Acton, and Westford’s handling of its financial problems are being laughed at. Elite Westford is being viewed as a joke.

You might say who cares what other communities think and I understand that sentiment. But if this town were smart and humble we would care. You have to remember this is a business; we need to put any pride aside.

Learn from the people who are succeeding because all this pride I see that won't let our elected officials relinquish trash removal, pay teachers fairly, or be honest about where the mistakes are being made. That will ultimately be our downfall.

Look at the brain drain after World War II.  We have all the makings of it now, and are not immune to collapse. Lowell and Lawrence used to be desirable; and we are setting ourselves up to crash and burn just like them.  I’ve seen quotes like “Westford has not been immune to the down economy”  Neither are we immune municipal collapse, in fact, with the way our elected officials are choosing to “fix” your problems, we’re right on track. 

Sincerely,

Alex Finnegan

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

James Andolini January 29, 2013 at 08:26 PM
Teachers are the easy scapegoats... If some people thought last year was rocky just wait for negotiations next year when the poop really hits the fan, SC members are already talking around town about how they anticipate a replay but the teachers OKing last year's deal was a one time thing I am willing to bet most are unwilling to repeat. My gut feeling is if negotiations don't go smoothly a work to rule situation by next spring, NO WAY teachers believe there isn't money for steps and COLA after they gave seen all these new added positions. No way.
Vincent DiRico January 29, 2013 at 10:36 PM
EVERYONE took a haircut last time. I doubt the same will be asked next time BUT also doubt there will be an override. Save the chest thumping, how are the lawsuits working out for you?
Chekov January 30, 2013 at 01:31 AM
Lawsuits working out about as good as Mitt Mentum right now old buddy sad to say
Science Guy January 30, 2013 at 10:54 AM
Superintendant Olsen said all last year he was tring to 'save jobs' by playing hardball at the table and offering his teachers basically nothing, I would like to see Andrew S do a Patch Questions this year on how the addition off all those positions this year and a proposed school budget for next year that includes many NEW staff positions is consistent with his 'saving existing jobs' pledge. Having a hard time putting those pieces together myself and would love some help from Andrew next time he sees Bill Olsen. I KNOW I am not the only one around here with this on my mind right now. #feelingprettydeceived
Vincent DiRico January 30, 2013 at 04:49 PM
Dreams of another FSF spending spree dance in their heads, ... :O

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