Win-win is the goal of teacher negotiations

In his letter to the editor published in the February 28 edition of the Avon Grove Sun, Charles Beatty, a member of the Avon Grove Board of School Directors, made a number of misleading statements regarding the proposed contract between the Avon Grove Education Association (AGEA) and the school district. That a sitting member of the school board would make these statements is both puzzling and disturbing.

Mr. Beatty claims that the 2007-2012 contract gave teachers both a pay raise of 4-5 percent every year plus the educational step increase that amounted to an additional 4.5 percent, implying an automatic 9 percent increase per year for every teacher. That is incorrect and misleading in two ways.

First, the pay raise and the step increase are different animals -- the pay raise rewards experience, while the educational step increase rewards additional skills and knowledge acquired through formal education. The education step must be earned by successfully completing relevant coursework, either towards additional certifications or to complete a masters or doctorate.

Not every teacher can take advantage of the education step each year. Second, not every pay raise or step increase resulted in a 4.5 percent increase; the specific increase depended on experience and education level. Many teachers, especially inexperienced ones, received no increase or only a small increase during the five years of the contract. Mr. Beatty would know this if he bothered to read (or comprehend) the contract.

I agree with Mr. Beatty that many Avon Grove teachers did, until 2012, enjoy pay raises that most working people in our district did not receive. And it would be hard to argue that Avon Grove teachers are underpaid. But the new contract does several things that will mitigate the growth of personnel costs, including no pay increase for the first year, revised benefit plans that lower yearly costs to the district, and a cap on tuition reimbursement that will save over $300,000 each year. That this new contract results in net savings to the district of more than $500,000 over two years may seem small to Mr. Beatty, but it is a significant step in the right direction. Perhaps Mr. Beatty is unaware that most contracts with teachers unions result in no savings at all.

What is most puzzling, however, is Mr. Beattys assertion that the district achieved these very real dollar savings at some great cost, i.e., fair share. Im no fan of fair share a rule that allows the union to collect a fee from teachers who do not pay union dues but are party to the unions collective bargaining agreement (CBA); this fee is considered by the union to be a fair share of the costs involved with negotiating and maintaining the CBA.

But fair share doesnt cost the taxpayers a dime. Nor is it as coercive as Mr. Beatty suggests after all, teachers who enjoy the benefits of the CBA but dont pay union dues are free riders; its not unreasonable to expect them to contribute. But fair share fees dont have to go the union; fees can be directed to any charity the teacher chooses. Furthermore, contributions to the unions PAC are strictly voluntary. Deducting fair share and voluntary PAC contributions will be an immaterial, if not zero, cost to the district.

That Mr. Beatty is willing to fall on his sword for an insignificant issue, and sneers at over half a million dollars in savings, is neither sensible nor fiscally responsible.

Its easy to beat up on unions and demand huge concessions but the reality is that unless state and federal law are changed, the teachers have every right to enter into collective bargaining agreements and to be represented by unions.

Therefore, by law, school districts must negotiate in good faith with unions. And the ultimate goal of negotiations is to create a win-win for both sides. I believe the new contact achieves that objective, in small but significant ways.

The reforms Mr. Beatty wants will not be achieved overnight, if at all, and the teachers have a seat at the table. Mr. Beatty also fails to recognize the opportunity costs of delaying a new agreement. Negotiation is a key business skill, in both union and non-union environments. Mr. Beatty seems to have a lot to learn in this area.

The one area where Mr. Beatty and I are in agreement is in giving the community more time to review and comment on the contract. Thirty days may be excessive; less than a week is far too short. At last nights meeting, the board postponed a vote on the contract to March 14. I applaud that decision. The contract is posted on the district web site, along with a summary of the major provisions. Everyone in the district should read the contract -- it is relatively short, straightforward and easy to understand.

As always, I encourage all members of the community to educate themselves on school district issues and to attend as many board and committee meetings as possible. Public engagement is necessary for a well-functioning and inclusive school system.

Brian Gaerity


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