My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Amherst looking for union givebacks

Amherst looking for union givebacks
Hampshire Gazette

Friday, June 5, 2009
AMHERST - With the teachers union not prepared to reduce or eliminate cost-of-living adjustments in the next budget year, getting other municipal unions to adjust their salary arrangements may be a daunting task.

But Town Manager Larry Shaffer said Wednesday that, despite the Amherst-Pelham Education Association's reluctance to give up its negotiated pay raises, he will engage in respectful, courteous discussion with the other unions.

"We will have a conversation with our unions, but I won't predict what their response will be," Shaffer said.

Shaffer has twice sent letters to the police, public works and service employees unions, the three unions on the town side with settled contracts for next year, asking their members to consider forgoing cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) because of the difficult budget year. But all have said that unless the teachers are on board with similar discussions on the COLAs, they would be unwilling to do so.

The COLAs on the town side total about $380,000.

Already, more than nine positions have been removed from next year's budget, and Shaffer said another six to seven jobs could be eliminated to bring the town budget to $18.3 million. The specific positions being cut have not yet been outlined by Shaffer, though department heads are actively working with Shaffer on this task.

Tim Sheehan, president of the Amherst-Pelham Education Association, said Wednesday that no meetings are scheduled with the School Committee to discuss the teachers' contract. Instead, teachers are prepared to wait and see how other things play out that affect the budgets for the regional and elementary schools.

"We bargained in good faith," Sheehan said. "It's the obligation of both parties to uphold the terms of the contract."

Sheehan said he was dismayed at the tone of the School Committee meeting this week, at which it was announced that up to 50 full-time equivalents will be laid off and at which committee member Andrew Churchill said he wanted to "send a clear signal" to the association in hopes it would reconsider its decision not to reopen the contract and its wage provisions. The contract calls for 3.5 percent COLAs, and about half of the teachers will also get 4 percent step raises.

Sheehan said Churchill was at the bargaining table when the contracts were negotiated.

He added that there have already been concessions from teachers. First, the union accepted the new health plan for school and town employees that will result in $280,000 in savings for the school budget. This comes by increasing the cost of co-pays for doctor visits and medication purchases, meaning some teachers will see an increase in out-of-pocket expenses.

"Teachers should be acknowledged for that and appreciated," Shaffer said. "It's movement."

With the exception of the fire union, all municipal unions have agreed to this, as well, saving $85,442. "It's a big number, and very gratifying," Shaffer said.

Shaffer said it reduces the amount of premiums the town has to place in its health trust fund and encourages employees to transition to an HMO, which is less expensive for the town.

The teachers union, Sheehan said, is also giving up its stipends for individual teachers and groups of teachers who do high-quality research. Finally, middle school staff recently revised the master schedule, a means of providing more class offerings for students, but which will force staff to work harder during the school day and need to do more work at night, Sheehan said.

At the Tuesday School Committee meeting, member Irv Rhodes called the cuts "devastating and unconscionable."

He said all around the country, teachers are agreeing to concessions rather than sacrificing the jobs of their colleagues. "Adults used to sacrifice for kids, and it wasn't the other way around," he said.


Anonymous said...

I don't see why teachers should make sacrifices if the voters won't, especially if the voters won't act to put the community on a sound financial footing. In the absence of that, the teachers (and other public employees) simply become The Gift That Keeps On Giving.

BUT I would love to see the public employees, including the teachers, and/or the college and the University propose to act IF the Town votes an override: the sort of matching funds strategy we see on public radio fund drives. The Finance Committee could even get in on it with a proposed commitment from reserves, but only in response to a successful override.

I see the ball in the voters' court, but some other interests in town could help it along.

Once again, in terms of overall tax burden (federal, state, local, property), we are NOT overtaxed, relative to our ancestors in times in recent memory. Since 1980, we have become a nation of whiners, especially about taxes.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

I do agree with shared sacrifice. All the adults of the town should make sacrifices, not just the teachers and especially not the kids.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone brought up the idea of an override targeted specifically toward the schools? I think some people in town might be more willing to vote for an override if they knew exactly what it was going to be spent on. Northampton seems to be doing something like that.

Abbie said...

I hope it will become clear once TM meets and the budgets are presented how painful this years budget shortfall presents. After that revelation, I hope there will be a push for an override.

Rick said...

Rich is absolutely right – I couldn’t agree more.

Once again a reminder that had the 07 override passed – a $2.5 million override – we would have $2.5 million more to work with for the 09/10 budget and perhaps $5 million more in reserves (from 07/08 and 08/09), unless that had been blown by extra spending – and I really doubt that much of it would have been.

Anonymous said...

Override, override, override. Can we possibly be a little more creative and think outside the box?
Instead of focusing on having teachers and/or property owners bail us out, could we come to grips with the concept of rezoning some land and increasing our tax base? Would a Home Depot located in North Amherst on 116, or any other appropriate location, be so offensive? And whatever happened to the idea of a light industrial or research park?

Academic institutions contribute more? More than the occasional fire truck.

And, of course, there's always the top heavy administrative fiefdoms, found in Town Hall, DPW and ARPS, with their corresponding financial waste.

But no. Let's focus on the teachers. And their HUGE salaries.
Can you tell from my tone, how I'll vote on any override?

Anonymous said...

How on earth would rezoning help our school budget for next year!!!! Have you noticed that the whole world is in an economic crisis and there is almost no new building going on? Have you noticed Hadly already has a Home Depot? Have you noticed that cities and towns across Massachusetts and the entire country, regardless of commercial tax base, are cutting state and local budgets? Next you will blame all of this all on the fact that Amherst has a town meeting form of government.

Anonymous said...

I think anon 10:13 was suggesting these changes to help our long-term structural problem in town, not necessarily the budget problem for next year (which I agree with you will not help that). And although there is already a Home Depot in Hadley (and soon to be a Lowe's), why couldn't Amherst try to lure another large retailer to the area off 116 mentioned above? I thought it was a good suggestion.

Part of Amherst's problem is that too much of our land is not on the tax rolls (either owned by the colleges/university or as preserved open space) so fewer people are paying to support the entire town. And of those fewer people, there is a higher proportion of residential parcels than in places like Hadley with a larger commercial tax base, contributing to long-term stability of that town.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:12

Please, I do know that there is a Home Depot in Hadley. And I do know next year's financial mess cannot be fixed quickly.

And to Anon 11:38, thank you for expressing my thoughts, minus my frustrated attitude.

Rick said...

Anon 10:13:

In case you haven’t noticed, not everyone in town is in favor of more development, so doing what you say is not as easy as you say. It’s typical for people to say “think outside the box” who are clueless about the actual real-life situation.

Of course expanding the tax base is a good idea and lots of us are trying to get that done.

But that is not mutually exclusive of overrides and if you think 2.5% - lower than inflation – is reasonable as a property tax limit, year after year, then by all means go for it… be one of the clueless voters.

Abbie said...

To anon@11:12, 11:39, 12:37

Are you on Town Meeting? If you aren't, run to be a member, that is the only way that things will change wrt to development. And encourage like-minded folks to run. GET INVOLVED. Please...

Anonymous said...

Northampton has lots of businesses ... and the same (or worse) budget situation. It's not like the business tax rate can rise higher than the Prop 2.5 rate, right? So adding businesses would lower what we each pay, but since the tax assessments would still only rise at 2.5 percent, tax revenues would still keep pace with the rate of increase in expenses (which rise faster than 2.5 percent.)
I think I've got that right - ?

Anonymous said...

I might want economic development.

You might want economic development.

But the vast majority of the residents of the Town have shown time and time again that they don't want it. They demonstrate that attitude in countless decisions they've made at the ballot box over the years, including in whom they elect to speak for them.

That's why we still have a Town Meeting form of government.
That's why we have a myriad of Not In My Back Yard movements in town, which result in a coalition of them in Town Meeting supporting each other on NIMBY resolutions.

Residents love the Town the way it is in nearly all of its details, except for their property tax bills. Most voted "with their feet" in moving here in the first place. They love the open spaces, they love being able to shop in the next town over. They love the devil they know, rather than the devil they might get with a full-force push for economic development.

In Amherst, the political reality is that economic development is not an "out of the box" end-run around the fiscal fantasy of Prop 2 1/2. We are better off trying to achieve some sort of synchronized reaching into our pockets between taxpayers, the colleges, the Finance Committee with reserves, and teachers and other public employees.

Rich Morse

Abbie said...

To anon@3:01

As I understand it, new growth (i.e. say a Lowes, for example) is not limited by Prop 2.5, it adds to the base of the next year. This is also true for houses. The difference is though that kids often come with new houses and they need schooling, which as we all know is very costly. The hypothetical Lowes, however, brings in tax $ but requires little in costly services...

I think you are right though, that the constraints of Prop 2.5 will still apply in the years after "the new growth". New growth adds to the base but doesn't change the slope of the line (just shifts it up). In my understanding, no matter how much new growth is attracted, Prop 2.5 will always come back to haunt (but with a variable delay). The issue is when will the line of tax revenue intersect with the line of expenditures.

that's how I understand it...

But with the new meals tax, if we adopt it, we could reap both increased property taxes and support our town while we dine...Or maybe better a hotel... or even better a hotel with a restaurant...

mariac said...

I've worked in a large hospital system, and when the year got financially difficult, all staff got a 2% increase across the board. This was a cut from the 4% or higher (based on merit). We all agreed to do this because noone wanted to see any lay-offs (from housekeeping to techs to RNs) in the hospital. It was like this for 2 yrs, then the regular pay/incentive increase was reimplemented. It worked. It actually worked out well. Everyone was watching out for each other.

Anonymous said...


"more development"---Have I missed something? Cannot remember seeing any commercial or industrial (of course "light" in Amherst) development recently.

And before you throw around the label "clueless", I would suggest talking to people who find it difficult to pay the additional 2.5%. Or should they not live in Amherst?

Anonymous said...

This is anon 3:01 again: I meant to say that if even new biz, tax revenues would NOT keep pace with expenses, because of the Prop 2.5 cap. (This is what I originally wrote: So adding businesses would lower what we each pay, but since the tax assessments would still only rise at 2.5 percent, tax revenues would still keep pace with the rate of increase in expenses (which rise faster than 2.5 percent.)
I think I've got that right - ?)

Abbie said...

to anon@11:10

as I understand it you are partly right. What's important though is say we had another Pufton Village (or nicer, like the JCI proposal) that in the first year brought in $500K, that gets added to the base the second year (first year it would be new growth and wouldn't add to the 2.5% limit). But as I understand it, it wouldn't lower the cost folks pay the second year after and beyond. The increase of 2.5% is applied to the $500k like the other prop revenue....Its acts like an override, basically.

But still the limits of prop 2.5 will apply and the line of revue will eventually intersect with expenditures (if they are more than 2.5% or so/year)...

Dr Benway said...

This scenario has been going on for at least the 30 years I've been observing it. It is just worse and the "financial crisis" are on a shorter cycle.
Anon 10:13 is absolutely right. The one essential ingredient that has to be added (or no amount of belt tightening or revenue generation will ever have more than short term benefit) is that the entire public sector financial system has to be reconfigured. This "spend it or loose it" mentality encouraged by a system that rewards fiscal irresponsibility by giving to those who spend, and taking from those who save is insane, and antithetical to all sound economic principals. The system has to be turned on its head, those departments that save money should be able to keep those savings to supplement their budgets, and those that spend everything should be denied any increase and severely audited.
Until this happens overides are useless, just a junky getting a quick fix, before you know it they are breaking into the tax payer's house and stealing the silverware again.
After the above mentioned changes, then increased revenue and cost saving measures, even possibly an overide, make sense.

Anonymous said...

So, the voters who do not want to upgrade our business tax base, but want to keep our quaint little town also want to keep our good school system so their property value stays relatively high.

The times are proving that this cannot be done.

If we want to maintain the quality of life, particuluarly education, that Amherst offers, we need to create a much broader tax base.

As the state cut more and more funding through two republican governors, our town was moved further out onto the thin ice of sustainability.

Then the second great depression hit and the cutting of state money grew exponentially because there was no tax money coming in, or not nearly what people had budgeted.

If we keep our quaint little town then our good schools will wither.

I agree with the 1980 reference in the first post. Say isn't that when the great communicator, Ronnie Raygun, began our country's 25 year slide into overbearing debt?

Maybe this is the year the schools will suffer serious losses and our self image of greatness will crumble more than a bit. Maybe then people will decide Amherst's long term fate for the next 15-20 years.

Does a strong business tax base help? I don;t hear any stories about budget crisis coming out of Hadley. Yes, Hadley did go over the top with big box stores, but look where all of those located, on the Amherst/Hadley border. The rest of Hadley is quite beautiful open land.

It appears that Hadley played a much more intelligent long term plan than Amherst.

Ironic isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Hadley also has tracking for seventh grade math! (Pre-algebra or Math 7)

Anonymous said...

I share your view and the irony. I remember when I first arrived in Amherst, 1959, it was all the rage to read about the political happenings in Hadley, and smile to oneself. Of course, WE wouldn't conduct ourselves in such a manner!
And allow a Stop & Shop within our borders? Certainly not.

Then, of course, we sent our children to the Amherst schools, thought to be of a "higher caliber" than Hadley's. This was before MCAS scores revealed the real truth.

All the while paying a much higher property tax. But we said, it was worth it. And now as I drive through the beautiful farmlands of Hadley, compare tax bills with some of my friends who live there, view recent MCAS scores, I can't help but think of "he who laughs...."