Trees in the Contract Negotiation Forest

Former Newton mayoral candidate Tom Sheff, commenting on contract negotiations with our teacher union recently stated: “… It’s possible to give a 1-2% payraise if the city gets back in return a 75-25% split on healthcare. It all depends upon the party’s priorities.”

Yet those details are the trees. The forest is the question “What can Newton both justify and afford to pay our teaching professionals?”

Justification relates to what it takes to attract and retain high quality teachers in Eastern Massachusetts. It is about finding the going rate for the level of teacher we seek. Affordability relates to how the compensation package fits in today’s budget and how it will impact future budgets. When talking about contracts, I often use affordability and financial sustainability interchangeably.

How much money can Newton place in our “total compensation of employees” pot? Financial sustainability suggests that this amount should not increase over time by more than the rate of our revenue increase. Compensation offerings that increase at a greater rate than the total compensation allocation can only work if they cover fewer and fewer employees each year.

Teachers want to maintain collective bargaining gains, while our school department (as proxies for our parents and students) want to maintain breadth, depth, and quality of programming while preventing class size from rising. In 2011 these interests are in direct competition for their share of a fixed pot of money.

So yes, it may be possible to give a 1-2% payraise if, for example, the city gets back in return a 75-25% split on healthcare. But this is just a detail in the giant discussion about how Newton can fairly compensate our teachers without damaging the quality of education we can offer to our children.