Wider effects possible from altruistic act

With two of their own about to lose jobs, 42 Brookline public school teachers this week gave up their pay raises, so they and some academic programs could stay afloat in the economy’s deepening waters.

The teachers agreed to forgo an average of a $2,000 pay hike next school year, although their union contract guaranteed raises and a cost-of-living increase.

Brookline School Board Chairman David Partridge said it was an “extremely unselfish” act that stopped the board from eliminating two teaching jobs and two programs at the district’s elementary schools.

But the teachers’ decision raises the question of whether other unionized public-sector employees will now face pressure to make the same Sophie’s Choice.

“It doesn’t set a precedent, but it sets a talking point and public pressure,” said Todd DeMitchell, a University of New Hampshire professor who teaches a class on collective bargaining in public education.

“(Taxpayers in other communities may ask,) if the teachers in Brookline have taken a zero (pay raise) because of the economic hard times, how come our teachers aren’t doing it?’ ” DeMitchell said.

In all, the 42-member Brookline Teachers Association will relinquish $102,683 in contracted salary increases to save the two teaching posts and

elementary-level environmental science and foreign language classes.elementary-level environmental science and foreign language classes.

The teachers agreed to skip their contractually obligated step increases as well as reduce their 3-percent Cost of Living Adjustment by 1 percent in the next fiscal year.

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

“We didn’t want to see people lose their jobs . . . Everybody was willing to sacrifice to help save positions,” Brookline teachers union president Karin Pillion said.

Brookline isn’t the only community facing tightening budgets and reduced tax revenue in the shadow of a weak economy. All over the country, public officials face tough decisions as they aim to keep taxes stable while trying to provide the same level of services.

“These are hard times,” said Charles Levenstein, a UMass-Lowell professor emeritus of economics.

Levenstein said that he had heard of education unions around the county that are taking the same step as Brookline’s teachers, but because this is the first budget season during the recession, it’s too early to tell if the practice will become widespread.

DeMitchell, the UNH professor, said he thought the Brookline decision won’t harm “the concept of unionization or unions’ political power,” but that the economy has forced “a balancing of their self interest with public education.”

For public pressure to sway teachers and other public employees unions, DeMitchell said, the argument would have to be made in the context of several questions: How long have the employees worked without a raise, what are the salary schedules of those in similar agreements, and what is the economic impact in the community?

In Nashua, Mayor Donnalee Lozeau wants the Board of Education to stay within a mandate of a one percent increase from the previous year. The board submitted a budget 2.5 percent higher than the current one, exceeding Lozeau’s guidelines by $1.2 million.

The cost to pay teachers next year will increase by 6.98 percent, or $3.2 million. The school district has not approached the Nashua Teachers Union to consider renegotiating salaries.

“Obviously we have a contract that lasts another two years,” Robert Sherman, president of Nashua Teachers’ Union, said.

The union and district will have to take it one year at a time through the bad economy, Sherman said, but he pointed to a number of factors that may lessen cost pressure.

These include, he said, that a significant number of teachers will retire this year, some non-tenured teachers won’t return because of district-deemed performance reasons, middle-school enrollment will decrease and fewer high school teachers will be needed because of shortened credit requirements for students.

“So far, what I’ve been able to ascertain is we’re not in a crisis situation,” Sherman said.

Brookline teachers belong to the New Hampshire chapter of the National Education Association. NH-NEA Executive Director Debra Schwoch-Swoboda didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.

Attempts to reach the leaders of other organized labor unions in New Hampshire were unsuccessful.

Laura Hainey, president of the New Hampshire Federation of Teachers, said the move shouldn’t put fear into other unions, nor does it set a precedent. “Every local (union) and district has to do what’s best for them,” Hainey said.

But with everyone suffering in the economy, tough decisions have to be made and it was encouraging to see the Brookline School Board and teachers working together, she said.