Binding Arbitration Puts Schools on Tortuous Path
Thursday, June 30, 2011
But the wider fiscal impact of binding arbitration for public sector workers (police and firefighters) outside the school system should serve as a huge red flag about the votes the Legislature may be making at the Statehouse this week.
The torturous path down which some communities are now traveling to find budget funding for primary local services, especially for what was once the basic mix of academics and arts enrichment in public schools, is on vivid display in Cranston.
Battle weary Mayor Allan Fung is embroiled in a new controversy concerning a funding offer from the city’s extremely well compensated firefighters, and a budget gap that is poised to silence the middle school music program.
The city had no choice but to eliminate music from the middle schools starting the new fiscal year (July 1) because of vastly shrinking funding for school programs.
But to make up for the loss of music, the firefighters union has offered to have all members “sacrifice” their individual uniform allowances ($90 extra allowance in their contracts) and turn that combined funding ($15,000) over to the schools to offer a reduced version of a before or after school music program.
Furthermore, they are accusing Fung of being unreasonable in not agreeing to this unwise arrangement. Fung has correctly stated the donation actually amounts to a concession (which will have implications down the road) and that it also could translate into a new required expenditure for the schools that unfortunately the city may be no longer able to afford.
The firefighters may believe they are being generous. What clearly doesn’t occur to them though, is that perhaps it is their own overly generous contract and benefit provision packages, that were won through decades of binding arbitration, that has landed the school music program, among other school offerings on the chopping block.
Cranston mirrors the state
It is an important battle to watch because in many ways Cranston is a mirror of the state itself.
This centrally located community that represents a hybrid version of a city and a suburb has a proud history. A reputation for neatly kept, safe local neighborhoods. Plentiful sports leagues and well maintained playing fields which yielded award winning teams and sent more than a few local boys onto professional sports careers. Good schools and a strong sense of civic engagement, all translating into a solid middle class place to raise a family. Many of those families were headed up by police officers, firefighters, teachers or principals who were employed by their hometown city. They were hardworking, loyal public employees whose own children’s education was dependent on a well-run, well-funded, but not indebted school system. That was the Cranston of many decades. It was the Cranston I was raised in. Frankly, that was the snapshot of many Rhode Island communities for many years.
But somewhere along the line, the unions representing these employees began to overreach for the compensation, contract provisions, and especially, retirement benefits they expected from their city.
The overreach has taken us to the present spectacle of having city firefighters offer the crumbs from their contract to prop up the dying music program.
Binding arbitration, reaching as far back as the 1970’s, secured Cranston firefighters the longevity pay bonuses they presently enjoy. Binding arbitration helped guarantee the contract that allows them to retire after 20 years of service, regardless of age, and receive full health benefits for the rest of their lives. Cranston’s present unfunded liability just for retiree health care, presently stands at over $50 million. That’s separate from the city’s overall unfunded liability for the pension benefit itself, now over a quarter of a BILLION dollars, $245 Million.
Taking the school contract decisions, which encompass curriculum and staff assignment policy—out of the hands of the local community—is at the heart of what binding arbitration for teachers would do.
It has played a central role in creating a cost structure for public safety personnel in Cranston, and elsewhere, that already threatens to devour most other community spending needs.
If it is going through for teachers at the Rhode Island General Assembly, then it’s clear those in power at your Legislature, refuse to hear the lesson of the silencing of music in Cranston.
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Donna Perry is a Communications Consultant for RISC, RI Statewide Coalition www.statewidecoalition.com
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