Opinion: Good teachers deserve good comp and taxpayers deserve relief

People sputtered, spit and spewed my damnation, private and public, and probably wanted to do very bad things to my privates in public, when I wrote a few weeks ago in support of the so-called budget repair bill, and urged the 14 wandering senators to come home.

Now it is done.

But is it really?

Eh, not really …

The bill is about to become law, but not so fast pard’ner. Even though unions have loudly said they were willing to pay the increased pension and healthcare costs, that appears to not be the case for those contracts already in place.

Or does it? Nobody seems to know and we’re in unchartered waters.

We do know the Kenosha Education Association – the teachers’ union – has refused to reopen contract negotiations. And why would they, when they’ve already secured pay raises, and it might mean they have to pay the increases on the healthcare and pension?

At risk of more people giving me the silent treatment and others not giving me the silent treatment loudly berating me, it’s because we are facing potentially 375 layoffs to make up for the $29 million budget shortfall in Kenosha Unified. If the union agrees to the increases now, it would save more than $13 million and about 90 of those jobs. If they agreed to healthcare insurance competition, instead of demanding only the WEA Trust, it might save another $5 million and about 30 more jobs.

Earlier I wrote that these increases might be painful, but it wasn’t like teachers were making chump change. And for saying this out loud, I’ve been called some very naughty names.

One person sent a mass e-mail to her colleagues and wrote, “Here’s another one against us.” A friend called me a “Mental Midget.” Others were more polite and just inferred I was making crazy talk when I said teachers made a combined $79,000 in pay and benefits.

Turns out the crazy talk was, well, crazy.

I hounded the district until they backed up the claim. According to those stats, the average salary is $58,139, and the average benefits cost is $32,692, for a total of $90,840.

Granted, some of those benefits include 1 percent of the teacher’s salary for worker’s compensation and 7.65 percent toward social security and MediCare. It’s probably not fair to include those. But some of the others include $21,257 for family healthcare, and $9,499 for single healthcare. We have a word for that where I come from in Pittsburgh, and that word is, “Holy crap! Are you kidding me????”

There’s also $1,297 in there for family dental, and 11.15 percent of a teacher’s salary toward the pension that comes straight from KUSD coffers before it hits the paycheck. They also get long-term care insurance paid for them, at a cost of $855.60 a year.

Good teachers deserve good salaries and good benefits. But The Gubner isn’t wrong for wanting to reign in some of the costs.

Whether you’re using old math, new math or Enron math, that’s a lot of dough. Would people still give so much vocal support for collective bargaining if they knew it meant this many millions in extra taxes?

Of the more than $300 million school budget, 90 percent goes directly to salaries and benefits. The remaining 10 percent is divvied up for classroom chairs, computers, gas, buses, pencils, rock salt for the ice, and Band-Aids for the nurses. That’s not a whole let left over.

We need to remind ourselves that all of this money comes from taxes, and there is a $3 billion deficit looming over our state. To pay this, we need to raise taxes, cut services, freeze salaries, increase employee costs toward healthcare and pension, or some combination from the list.

Some will paint you as anti-teacher if you support the bill or reopening the contracts. Not true. I have a lot of teachers who are my friends. If any of them were still speaking to me, you could ask them and they might tell you so.

With that in mind, here are a couple truths we should hold to be self-evident:

  • The majority of teachers and other state employees are good, hard-working people who just want to put food on their table, and have dreams of success and moving ahead, like all of us.
  • Just like the private sector, there are a few state employees and teachers who are lazy buffoons, who somehow, despite all known wisdom and logic, find a way to skate by. Some skate by because they are in a union and have tenure. Or maybe they’re just extremely lucky, have a knack for looking busy and perhaps have damning photos of their boss during his trip last year to Thailand.
  • Anti-union people say unions protect bad teachers. But if I added up all the teachers all my children have had at Kenosha Unified in their lifetime, that’s about 120 of them. Of those, maybe three or four fit into the “bad” category. That’s an awfully low number.
  • I’m all for a teacher’s union and representation to a point, but draw the line at teachers collectively bargaining for their health insurance, and for very good reason. They refuse to take anything but the WEA Trust insurance, which is owned and operated by the teacher’s union. Any money paid for this insurance goes back to the union. I’m OK with that, too, if the union administered their insurance in a more cost-effective manner. But the district routinely has offered the teachers the same kind of insurance coverage from a different company that would have cost, on average, $5 to $10 million less per year.
  • The district is currently locked into a three-year insurance deal with the WEA Trust, after the union-run insurance came in cheaper than United Healthcare for the first time since 2004. The caveat was the district had to put everyone under WEA Trust, even those not in the union, and had to agree to the three-year lock. They will tell you this move saved $2.4 million this year, and is projected to save $7.2 million more by 2013. The problem is, “projected” is speculative guessing at best. They have no idea what other insurance companies would offer the same coverage for, because they won’t even hear about other plans. What they don’t say is the WEA Trust insurance was so overpriced in the past, it cost taxpayers between $35 and $70 million since 20004. Whether you take the lower number or the higher number, subtract the current savings, it doesn’t come close.

Now teachers and other state employees have had the nerve to say if The Gubner wants public servants to kick in more on their pensions and healthcare, then he should lead the way since he makes $137,000 a year, and will probably take a large portion of that salary after he leaves office.

They are right on that one. Real leaders lead by example. He should contribute 10 percent.

And they say this isn’t about balancing a budget, it’s all about union busting.

There may be some truth to both sides of that argument.

But if the union wants me to empathize with them, how come they don’t seem to care about the 375 teachers who face potential layoffs?

It doesn’t sound like they are practicing the solidarity that they preach.

In the military, we never left the wounded or dying on the battlefield. But in this case, I guess 375 teachers are just collateral damage.

Gary Kunich is a Kenosha resident. He was a reporter and columnist at the Kenosha News, where he covered the Kenosha Unified School District as his beat. Before that, he was in the Air Force for a heck of a long time.

One Response to Opinion: Good teachers deserve good comp and taxpayers deserve relief

  • Robert Gregory says:

    “But some of the others include $21,257 for family healthcare, and $9,499 for single healthcare. We have a word for that where I come from in Pittsburgh, and that word is, “Holy crap! Are you kidding me????””

    I say, welcome to today’s healthcare. Have you checked with any large corporation as to how much they actually pay for health insurance for their employees? I changed jobs and had to pay COBRA coverage for a time. My monthly bill for just insurance coverage was $472 a month. That calculates to about $6000 a year. And that was in 2000! Is $9k a lot for individual care? Maybe. But not by a lot. People think that the money THEY pay is the amount insurance costs. And isn’t. By a lot.

    I keep hearing how the teachers in Wisconsin are paid so much. And you found that Kenosha teachers are paid above the average amount in the state. In a city that has a cost of living significantly above the average for the state. Not a surprise. And as you state, the teachers in Kenosha are amazing. I am a product of that system, and I sing its praises nearly everywhere I go. So, I suggest the city is getting a bargain. But I will accept that my opinion may not be shared by everyone.

    But somehow, these marginal excesses appear not to be as big as everyone seems to make out. The average salary is about $10,000 below those for Bachelors and Masters educated people. Even if you count summer as “time off” (which I would argue, it is not – try and find meaningful employment for two and a half months a year), that puts them about even.

    Pensions always are paid pre-tax, as you remarked the pensions are for teachers. I had one at every corporation at which I worked until 2001. As far as I know, each of those companies still do. And, yes, they have 401K’s too. And they match contributions. The teachers are a bit behind the times, perhaps, but hardly a surprise. Things move very, very slowly in education. It is in the nature of the system. Suggesting that these payments are somehow inappropriate because they are paid pre-tax is pretty misleading.

    Self-insured policies are common in the private sector. Every corporation I ever worked for used their own funds to keep costs to a minimum, and the WEA’s is really in the same vane as most other large organizations. Could the District save some money if the coverage were shopped out? Maybe. Probably. But how much? And long term lock out deals are very common in the private sector, too. All insurance companies give better annual costs for longer term contracts. And companies gobble them up. They save money. And, yes, no one in the company that signs them ever hears about other plans during those times. Why is it bad business for the union when the boards of nearly every Fortune 500 company think it is very good business for them? You can’t punish the WEA Trust for past deals with the district. They were made in a different time, when the economics were not even being discussed by anyone, Governor Walker included. You want to reign in costs? Sounds to me like the WEA Trust did just that. I am at a loss for what more you would want the union to do to support the fix to the deficit.

    I will leave it to someone in the union to defend why they won’t reopen negotiations. I am not, nor have I ever been in a union. I also support the need to get the deficit under control. There is no question that, without the tax revenue that corporate profits and strong sales taxes bring, the state’s cost control needs to be improved.

    But it would seem to me that, assuming you don’t want to reduce teachers salaries to a range where no one will want the job, that few of the things that the bill brought us were things that the union wasn’t willing to provide, exactly in the way that we would want responsible employees to behave. And without the bill, they had the chance to make up some ground when the state returns to the high revenues it has traditionally enjoyed, the same as those responsible employees would expect in the private sector. That chance is now gone. And for what? I don’t see the savings that the bill provided beyond what the union said they were willing to go for as being anything resembling a margin worth the ill will the resulting fight produced.

    I have said this in numerous forums, and I will say it here. I have no doubt that there are state employees, even large numbers of them, who are compensated well beyond a reasonable level for the training and skill their jobs require. It sure seems to me that the teachers were the wrong fight to pick. Even if you have to believe that the unions need to go away, and that is your motive, the teachers weren’t even the place to start. There had to be better precedents. And in the process, the current administration alienated large percentages of their base, the ensuing fight caused a nearly permanent adversarial relationship between the state and one of the most important and indispensible set of employees it has, and probably cost the state more than they will save this year in security costs. This was a bad, bad deal. No matter which side of the fight you are on.

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