Teachers nix raises to help lessen cuts

BROOKLINE – The 42-member Brookline Teachers Association will forgo negotiated raises to save two teachers’ jobs and two programs slated for the chopping block.

In a signed letter to the school board, the teachers agreed to skip their step increases and take a reduced Cost of Living Adjustment in the next fiscal year. In all, the teachers are giving up $102,683 in contracted salary increases – or an average of more than $2,000 each – to save jobs and programs.

“I think it was outstanding on their part,” said School Board Chairman David Partridge.

“It was an extremely unselfish and impressive act on their part, and if they hadn’t done it, no question, we would have had to cut positions,” Partridge said.

Earlier this month, voters cut $224,279 from a proposed school district budget that school board members said had already been trimmed almost to the bone.

The pared down budget would likely force the schools to eliminate environmental science and foreign language classes in the district’s two elementary schools and staff cuts were also a certainty, officials warned.

Teachers union president Karin Pillion said the teachers understand the gravity of the ongoing economic crisis.

“We didn’t want to see people lose their jobs, and we’re hoping for some stimulus money to come through, but there aren’t guarantees,” Pillion said. “Everybody was willing to sacrifice to help save positions.”

According to a contract between the BTA and the school district, the district was obligated to pay the step raises and a 3 percent Cost of Living Adjustment increase.

Four years ago, when the teachers negotiated their contract, officials acknowledged salaries were lower in Brookline than in comparably sized towns. During the life of the contract, officials had promised, the teachers would receive raises to bring them into parity.

That was before the sudden collapse of the global economy and the ongoing hardships families and individuals are facing everywhere.

After many meetings and extensive discussions, the BTA, which is in the fourth year of a five-year contract, voted to sacrifice the step raises and reduce the cost of living adjustment to 2 percent. Pillion said teachers are hoping that the 2 percent cost of living increase will cover any increases in health insurance.

“We had several meetings after school over the last month and sent out an inventory of possibilities,” said Pillion, describing how the teachers’ union studied various scenarios before settling on one.

On Tuesday night, the teachers’ union made a verbal agreement with the school board. On Wednesday, the BTA followed up with a formal, signed letter, sealing the deal.

Pillion attributed the delay to a technical blip: a letter drafted by a National Education Association representative on behalf of the local union arrived Wednesday morning, hours after the School Board had adjourned.

“We worked very hard and we got the cooperation of everybody,” said School Board member Marcia Farwell, who has served on the board, in non-consecutive terms, for about 25 years. “It was pretty heartening.”

Pillion, the BTA president, said voters attending annual budget meetings in Brookline and neighboring Hollis, urged teachers to refuse negotiated pay raises this year.

“Why aren’t teachers taking pay freezes in this economy?” Pillion recalled hearing during the Brookline school and town meetings. “I wanted to get up and speak, but it wasn’t my town.” She lives in Hollis.

Some officials said the teachers’ decision to forgo negotiated step raises in the next budget year is unprecedented.

Against the backdrop of bank bailouts and exorbitant executive bonuses, moreover, the teachers’ action was applauded.

“It was a wonderful show of faith from the staff that the right decisions will be made not to impact teachers and programming,” said Lorraine Wenger, principal of Captain Samuel Douglass Academy, one of two schools in the district. The other school is the Richard Maghakian Memorial School.

SAU Superintendent Susan Hodgdon, in an email, described the teachers as “generous” and “selfless.”

“It is truly remarkable in these economic times that, with a contract that would have given the teachers every right to maintain the step increases, they chose to help the district close its $224,279 gap in the fiscal year 2010 budget,” Hodgdon wrote.

Added Farwell, “We were absolutely delighted.”

Teachers weren’t the only ones taking a pay cut, either.

On Tuesday, the school board voted to reduce members’ stipends, from $400 each to $50 each per year, a savings to the school district of $1,750.