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Opinion

I would like to respond to Martin R. Hamburger's critique of my letter on the excessive salary levels and overall poor productivity of Port teachers. First, Mr. Hamburger incorrectly wrote that I believe Port teachers achieve their contract goals by "retaliating against children and intimidating neighbors." That is not what I said. What I did say was that numerous people told me they agreed with me, "but every one of them was apprehensive about saying so publicly, either fearing retaliation against their children or upsetting neighbors who were teachers." Do I think teachers would retaliate? The overwhelming majority would not; but a few possibly would. And that fear on the part of parents is quite understandable. With regard to the second concern - upsetting neighbors who are teachers. That is simply human nature; witness the tone of Mr. Hamburger's letter.

Second, Mr. Hamburger says he "doesn't denigrate the productivity of AT&T executives, nor suggest that newcomers receive lower compensation." What this has to do with the point at issue, I haven't the foggiest. If he feels AT&T's costs are too high, and the productivity of employees too low, all he has to do, with a simple telephone call, is switch over to MCI, or Sprint or any of a dozen competitors. Taxpayers, on the other hand, facing an educational finance monopoly, have no such simple choice. Our only choice is a drastic one: uproot our families, leave our friends, change our jobs and move.

Mr. Hamburger states that his best friend's daughter in her first year on Wall Street makes what a typical 20-year Port teacher makes, which is about $80,000. Well, this young lady is either unusually talented or very well-connected, because that is not what most new college grads are getting. A typical college grad will earn a first year salary of about $35,000 and will work 240 days per year, earning $146 per day. A new Port teacher, with a BA degree, starts at $37,800 and works only 180 days, earning $210 per day! If we adjust for the workyear difference, the new Port teacher (BA, step 1) is paid the equivalent of $50,000. And this new Port teacher has superb benefits and can be, and often is, home by 4 p.m.

Finally, Mr. Hamburger asks, "What is special about public employees' salaries that they should be subjected to false economies and slanderous attacks?" What, pray tell, was even remotely "slanderous" in my letter? But more important is the point about "false economies" because that is precisely the point I am making. What basic market economics clearly and incontrovertibly suggests is that, given an average of 4800 applicants for 26 open teacher positions in Port, we do not have to pay the salaries we are paying to attract highly qualified teachers. These are extremely desirable jobs and would attract more than enough qualified applicants at salary levels even 20 percent lower. What both the market and fundamental justice tell us is that our current salary schedule should be frozen, annual step increases continued, and salaries for new teachers reduced on a phased in basis so as not to unfairly affect current teachers.

If we are truly interested in quality education, let's begin addressing the real "quality" issues, e.g., that it is almost impossible to fire incompetent teachers, or to reward superior ones. The reason is simple. Teacher unions traditionally oppose change; they fight merit systems; they support mediocrity; and they protect incompetence. They simple want more pay for less work, which is precisely opposite to the direction the rest of the real competitive world is going.

The typical Port teacher earned nearly $80,000 last year, a figure well above what the market requires. The productivity of Port teachers, at 11 pupils per professional staff person, is 20 percent below the average of all other Nassau public school districts. If Port's cost per pupil were the same as the rest of Nassau public schools, our school budget would be $12 million lower. Port school taxes are 62 percent of our total property taxes, and have risen between 1987 and 1997 at a rate more than four times the average of all other components of our town and county property taxes! While a good case can be made for raising teacher salaries in NYC and the rest of the nation, such is not the case in Long Island, and certainly not the case in Port. Unfortunately, judging from past experience, every single contract negotiated by Port's School Board in the past 20 years was a giveaway contract, resulting in today's unreasonably burdensome school taxes. Will the current school board negotiate a contract that is fair and just from the taxpayers' standpoint? My guess is that it will not, that it will essentially cave in to the teachers union, and the new contract will set the stage for three more years of unwarranted and, yes, immoral tax increases that will unjustifiably harm many struggling homeowners and business people in Port.

As some of you know, I produce a weekly public access TV program (Wednesdays, 11 a.m. and 9 p.m., Channel 80 or 96). I would like to publicly invite Mr. Hamburger, or any other union representative, to come onto the program and engage in a civil, friendly and fair discussion of the issues we are debating in our letters for the entire community to see and judge for itself which position is morally, educationally and economically the correct one. Do I have any takers?

Frank J. Russo, Jr.




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