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They didnít have to do it...and the board appreciates it and I want to believe the community will appreciate it as well.

Teachers step up to help school budgets

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School across the North Country finalized their budget plans last week. Now they go before the voters on Tuesday, May 17.

Most spending plans raise taxes and cut staff and programs. But the situation could have been worse if teachers didn't help out.

According to New York State United Teachers, at least 200 local teachers' unions - or about a third statewide - accepted contract concessions or restructuring to give more money to their school budgets.

Pressure to do so came from the highest levels of state government, and some say teachers didn't give enough. David Sommerstein reports.

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David Sommerstein
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A couple weeks ago at Beaver River central schools in Lewis County, students held a talent show to raise money.  Their music and arts teachers were on the chopping block.

[sound of guitars warming up]

Gabe Sheppard warmed up his guitar before going onstage.  Sheppard graduated last year.

I didn’t learn guitar here, but I learned trumpet through the music program through high school and if they get rid of that and art, I think it’s just horrible.

Local residents showed up and donated spare change.  At the same time, the teachers were debating whether to give up their salary increases this year – to help save music and arts…and sports and busing and custodial work.

Since then, the teachers voted 56 to 6 to do so.  The move is saving Beaver River 120,000 dollars to apply to other parts of the budget.  Music teacher Peter Woolschlager says the community was supporting the school, and the teachers felt they had to do their part.

It’s a tough time right now for everybody in the community.  We just kinda recognized that we have to do something as well to support this crisis.

Across the North Country, local teachers’ unions have voted to pitch in to their schools’ budget shortfalls.  Hudson Falls, South Glens Falls, LaFargeville, and Fort Edwards teachers all accepted pay freezes.  Sackets Harbor did so for the second year in a row.  Saranac Lake, Lake Placid, and Ticonderoga teachers reduced their scheduled pay increases.  St. Regis Falls’ teachers paid more into their health insurance, saving the school 25,000 dollars.

St. Regis Falls interim superintendent Beverly Ouderkirk says teachers are making these concessions because they really care about good education.

On Friday, I came back to my desk from elsewhere in the building and there was an envelope with my name on it and I opened it and it was also from the teachers association giving a donation towards the enrichment programs that they had heard about that we were trying to save.

Ouderkirk has run schools all over the state.  She says there’s another reason for the teacher concessions.  The budgets have to go before the voters, some of whom may be resentful of teacher compensation. 

When it comes to comparing salaries, sometimes there’s a perception that the teachers are paid better than many other people that live in some of these communities.

Particularly in rural areas, teachers are among the best paid.  And many pay less for health insurance than employees in the private sector.

E.J. McMahon is a senior fellow with the fiscally conservative Empire Center for New York State Policy.

Through last year, the average increase in teachers’ salaries was over five percent a year, and that’s during a period when many private sector salaries were flat or even declining.

McMahon points to the fact that about two-thirds of teachers unions did not make contract concessions in a year many called a crisis.  McMahon has been calling for the state legislature to impose a salary freeze on all teachers.

Teacher compensation got out ahead of the affordability curve during this very severe recession which requires a restructuring of government at every level and that a statewide freeze in teacher pay would provide a bit of breathing room for school districts to catch up.

This view that education funding in New York has gotten too big - structurally  -reflects Governor Cuomo’s position since his executive budget address in February.

It is the cycle of passing these unsustainable increases that set us up to fail year after year.

The state teachers union calls this line of thinking “a well orchestrated campaign to demonize teachers” by New York’s business interests.  Carl Korn is spokesman for New York State United Teachers.

By pointing their fingers at teachers and other public employees, somehow we’ll all forget that it was the greed on Wall Street that led to the economic collapse in the first place.

Korn says New York is one of seven states in the country where teachers are required to have masters degrees.

And when you look at what teachers earn and compare that to other professionals  with masters degrees, you’ll find that most teachers are paid fairly, but many earn less than what they should earn and certainly less than what they would earn in the private sector.

Korn says teachers are showing their willingness to share in sacrifice this year with the contract concessions they’ve made.

St. Regis Falls superintendent Beverly Ouderkirk agrees.

They didn’t have to do it and I think that’s really good and the board appreciates it and I want to believe the community will appreciate it as well.

Whether the community does appreciate it will ultimately be decided when residents vote on their local school budgets on May 17.

For North Country Public Radio, I’m David Sommerstein.

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