Nearly 29,000 Syracuse-area residents have lost their jobs and the inflation rate is flat so you’d think that might give school board members pause.

Yet, the 10 school districts in the area that settled contracts in the year or so since the recession hit have awarded annual raises to teachers and staff that–with one exception–range from 3.5 to 4 percent, according to a review by The Post-Standard. The average annual pay raise is 3.69 percent.

Syracuse, the biggest district in the area, awarded its teachers 4 percent raises for four years: a nearly 17 percent increase in pay.

The newspaper cites government statistics: the cost of living declined .02 percent in the year ending October 2009; weekly wages dropped 1.4 percent nationally while weekly wages increased locally by a mere 0.001 percent; and the local unemployment rate is 7.8 percent.

None of these grim facts seemed to impress school superintendents, school board members or union officials.

Union representatives and school officials say the wage increases are key in retaining good teachers. School boards look at what raises are being given by neighboring school districts and attempt to stay in line with those to be competitive.

Just a moment. In order to poach teachers from their neighbors, school districts must have job openings. Given the economy, likelihood of state school aid cuts, anticipated higher pension costs and elimination of federal stimulus funds in a year, it’s hard to imagine any school district will be hiring large numbers of teachers in the future. With few job openings, there’s less danger good teachers will drift to other districts, especially when it means a loss of of seniority, which could make them vulnerable to layoffs in the new district.

As the Post-Standard reports in a second article, local school boards refuse to make tentative contracts public after they ratified them–when it is too late for taxpayers to question the wisdom and affordability of the contracts.

The Altmar-Parish-Williamstown school district has reached a tentative four-year contract with its teachers union, but Superintendent Jerry Hudson refuses to release the contract until after the board approves it.

To do that “would be a breach of good faith negotiations,” he said. “It’s not easy to reach an agreement with both parties now, and if we got the public involved it would be that much more cumbersome.”

However, Cornell University professor Lee Adler says that once the two sides have reached a tentative agreement, the proposed contract should be made public.

“Citizens should have the right to ask questions or make comments as part of the ratification process,” he said.

For more about contract secrecy, see the Empire Center’s policy briefing “Lifting the Shroud of Secrecy From Public Employee Contracts” (here).

Assemblywoman Sandra Galef has introduced a bill that would require school districts to post contracts on their web pages a month before ratification by the school board.

Originally Published: NY Public Payroll Watch

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