In the last two issues of the Port News we saw an ad from the Port Washington Teachers Association complaining about the absence of a new contract, and four letters from teacher union members calling for a "fair contract," complaining about long hours going unappreciated, and suggesting that the absence of a contract implies a lack of respect for teachers. As one who has studied and researched teacher contracts and salaries for 25 years, I would like to comment on the ad and the letters.
First, it goes without saying that teaching is a most noble profession with the potential to impact hundreds of young minds in a positive way for the benefit of all. As one whose wife, mother, daughter and two daughter-in-law are or were professional teachers, I realize all too well that many teachers are paid too little and are sometimes not treated with the respect due them by parents and students. This certainly goes for many, and probably most, NYC teachers whose average salary is $45,000. And teachers in many other states are, in my view, poorly paid with salaries averaging only $35,000. But just as certainly, this does not apply to Port teachers earning a median salary of $77,000 plus generous fringe benefits, bringing total annual compensation for the typical Port teacher to over $90,000. Since teachers work 180 days per year, this equates to $500 per day!
The reason I say NYC teachers are paid too little is that NYC cannot attract a sufficient number of qualified teachers. But here in Port the picture is very, very different. Based on the 1991 study by Port's General Council of Homeowner Associations, we know that Port schools receive about 4800 applications each year for some 26 teacher openings. If salary levels were 20 percent lower (with a median salary of $62,000 instead of $77,000), we would still see more than 100 applicants per available position.
Not only are our salary levels excessive, but productivity is extremely poor. Teachers in grades 6 through 12 average only 16 hours of teaching time per week, when 20 is the norm. That's one reason why the student to staff ratio in Port is only 11, while it is 13 for the rest of Nassau public schools. If our teacher productivity were equal to that of other Nassau public schools, our costs could be lowered by $5 million annually, and property taxes would be lowered by over $400 for the typical Port home assessed at $10,000. School taxes account for 62 percent of our total property taxes, and school tax increases account for 85 percent of total property tax increases from 1987 to 1997.
Everyone wants a new contract that is fair to all-teachers and taxpayers. In my view, such a new contract should freeze the current salary schedule, while continuing the annual step increases. But salaries should be reduced for new teachers by reducing steps 1, 2 and 3 over the next three years. Given the market conditions, the current excessive salary levels, the desirable working conditions in Port, the generous fringe benefits and finally, the extremely high tax burden facing both residents and businesses in Port, the next contract should take these elemental issues of justice into account, and freeze the teacher cost component of our $16,500 per student annual cost by freezing the existing salary schedule, of increasing productivity or some combination of the two.
Finally, everyone should be aware that with the new law that took effect in January, of this year, our school budget votes now carry far greater significance than ever before. If this contract continues the past pattern of giveaways, Port voters can vote down next year's budget which will, for the first time ever, put a cap on total spending. In the past, a defeated budget simply meant cutting sports programs, busing and field trips. No more! These things are no longer required to be cut with a budget defeat, while at the same time a budget defeat does mean that the school district will be forced to meet a specific budget cap. A foolish contract signed now will tie the hands of future school boards and risk budget defeats with stringent spending caps.
I believe the teacher union members who wrote last week were disingenuous. We all want a contract signed, but it must be fair to the taxpayers as well. Our teachers must recognize that they have got an incredible deal today that is placing an enormous tax burden on all of us. I have spoken to numerous Port residents, many of them parents of school children. Nearly every one of them agrees with the point of view I have expressed above-but every one of them is apprehensive about saying so publicly, either fearing retaliation against their children, or upsetting neighbors who are teachers. I can understand both reasons, but I am more concerned about our skyrocketing property taxes and the major role played by unreasonable school costs caused by excessive salaries and poor productivity, that I think it's wrong not to say something.
Frank J. Russo, Jr.