Several letters expressed support for a new teachers' contract and sadness over contingency budget limitations. We're on a contingency budget because last year's school board submitted two unreasonable budgets with increases of 8 percent and 9 percent. The teachers' contract issue is most critical. All of us - teachers and taxpayers - want to see a fair contract signed tomorrow.
The question is, "What is fair?" Since we're not dealing with "fairness" in the sense of near-minimum wages, it's not a matter of "justice" for "poor" working people. Fairness in this case is what the market requires to attract qualified teachers. Let's review a few basic facts:
* Port has over 100 applicants for every open teacher position.
* There are 140 Port teachers (30 percent) who earn over $100,000 a year.
* The average Port teacher earns $90,000 a year.
* A Port teacher receives fringe benefits costing $28,000 a year.
* Port salaries are in the top third of Nassau school districts (BOCES data).
* Port students place in the middle third of Nassau school test results.
* Port teachers earn 50 percent more than teachers in nearby Queens.
* Teachers are "off" 17 weeks/year (vs. seven weeks for non-teachers).
* After five years, school employees can retire at 55 with health benefits for life.
These facts strongly suggest our current salaries are more than high enough to do the job fairly and effectively. Teachers play a critical role in our children's education and development, making the job a most important one. And, fortunately, most of Port's teachers, and indeed, most teachers everywhere, are dedicated to their work and love their students. I know this first hand, as my wife, mother, daughter and two daughters in law were all teachers. Unfortunately, our teacher union objects to a merit pay system, and so the worst teacher gets the same pay as the best teacher, based on tenure and credits. Considering the harmful pattern of recent tax increases, this new contract should be revenue and cost neutral. Our teachers should be asked, in fairness to the community, to bear a larger share of the enormous health and dental insurance costs of $45,000/teacher for the next three years. Today, teachers pay 20 percent for family coverage and 5 percent for individual. These should be increased to 40 percent and 20 percent, respectively. The savings could then be paid to the best 300 teachers (top 65 percent) in the form of merit pay bonuses. A fair contract, freezing our already generous salary schedule, would still pay teachers their annual "step increases."
I have great respect for our teachers, and realize most are doing a fine job. I also recognize that many of the "failures" are due to circumstances beyond their control. But none of this justifies paying the worst teacher as much as the best, nor paying the teacher who stays until 5 p.m. helping kids the same as the one who leaves at 3:30 p.m. Perhaps, the contract should require all teachers to stay until 4 p.m. twice a week to assist kids needing help. Let's be candid - most Port teachers fully recognize how many others would love to have their jobs. If our teachers would accept such terms as these, I suspect the board of education would agree and we'd have a contract signed tomorrow. We now ask our fine teachers to please be fair to a community that's been more than fair to them for 30 years.
Frank J. Russo, Jr.
President, Port Washington Educational Assembly