In announcing the tentative agreement between the Manchester Board of School Committee and the Manchester Education Association, negotiators for both sides praised themselves and the other for the constructive, respectful dialogue that produced a fair contract for Manchester’s long suffering educators.  As Chairman of the Special Committee on Negotiations for the school board in the prior term, I waited eagerly to see the document and learn whether or not the deal was all it was said to be, including, if not especially, “financially sustainable,” as proclaimed by Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig.

After reviewing the document, it became clear that the school board’s negotiators, Superintendent Dr. John Goldhardt and Attorney Matt Upton, categorically capitulated to teacher demands on virtually point of contention that existed between the union and the desires of the prior board And administration.  To nobody’s surprise, their failure to advance the ball was ratified by the Board of School Committee on April 1, 2020.  If the Manchester Board of Mayor and Aldermen ratifies the deal tomorrow night, it will be “a fait accompli.”  

To provide that board and the public with a breakdown of the contract and a comparison to the directives given the Special Committee on Negotiations by the prior Board of School Committee, this analysis is offered.  Note well that I will address the changes as they appear in the agreement.

ARTICLE ONE Recognition:  This contract will now be extended to part-time teachers.  Reference to “full time classroom” is removed from the sentence saying all teachers will be covered by the contract.  The section also strikes the word “Guidance” from the term “Guidance Counselors,” meaning all counselors who are not educators will now be subject to the terms of the contract.  Expanding the union franchise is not in the interest of the district or its ability to deploy resources as it needs to to meet student needs.

ARTICLE FIVE Salaries and Other Compensation, Section E.2:  One of the items the prior board wanted removed from the contract was the inclusion of “athletic activity positions” in the contract.  As we were advised by then Superintendent Dr. Bolgen Vargas and Attorney Upton, this part of the contract is actually contrary to state law.  Moreover, even if it weren’t, what sports are offered should be a matter for the school board to determine, not the union contract.  Instead of pursuing the removal of this section, the board caved in to union demands that additional sports be included.  If adopted, the district will now be contractually obligated to provide more sports.  (NOTE:  Salary costs will be discussed toward the end of this analysis.)

Section K:  Benefits will now be provided to part-time employees.  Since benefit costs, including FICA, NH State Retirement and health insurance add about 50% to the cost of employment, it’s important to know just what this is projected to cost.  That information has not been identified in any documents released to the public.

ARTICLE SIX Insurance:  Here the district and the union agreed to the very “site of service” plan that the MEA continually found reasons to not accept during the prior two years of negotiation.  The inclusion of this plan is not a “concession” by the union to the city.  It is a different approach to providing various diagnostic services that saves both the district and the employee money by providing lower, if any, co-pays for low cost providers and higher co-pays for more expensive ones.

The board also abandoned its demand that the insurance premium sharing arrangement between it and the union reach 80/20.  Currently, the district pays 85% of the cost of the teacher health insurance plans, capped at 85% of the cost of the HSA insurance plan.  While the agreement moves the premium sharing on dental insurance to 80/20 effective July 1, 2021 (it’s currently 863/17), it only moves the premium sharing on the health insurance to 82.5/17.5 on July 2, 2021.  This presents a serious equity issue with other district employees and bargaining units as well as with employees and unions on the “city side” of the budget.  Notice that it will take more than a year for these changes to take effect.

The section providing for a $4,000 payment to every teacher who didn’t take the district’s health insurance IF a minimum number of teachers opted-out was removed.  As the teachers never met the threshold to obtain the payment and the threshold was high enough that it was unlikely ever to be met, its removal accomplished nothing.  Interestingly, the MEA rejected our committee’s offer to eliminate the minimum threshold in exchange for a lower payout to those who opted out.  

(Please know that the threshold was established to ensure that there would be sufficient funds in the health insurance budget to pay those who opted out.  That threshold, by the way, was 160 teachers, which if met, would have cost the district $640,000 and grown with each opt-out over that number.)

ARTICLE SEVEN Professional Learning and Educational Improvement:  Section A.6. gives teachers a second chance to get unused professional development funds.  The district is obligated to fund professional development for teachers that take classes, usually toward an advanced degree that will boost their pay.  There is a cap on the amount of money the district will provide in reimbursements.  As this section is written, if there’s any money left in that line item, which there always is, those teachers who hit the cap will receive additional funds until the money is gone.

In Section D, the district creates student loan reimbursement stipends.  After discussing this proposal with the administration, our committee informed the MEA’s negotiators that a federal program already existed to provide student loan relief to teachers who teach in Title I schools.  We noted that most of the city’s schools were already carried that federal poverty designation and offered to market that program to the city’s teachers.  We also discussed the then administrations efforts to move the entire district to Title I status, because it qualifies, instead of designating individual schools.  That would provide additional opportunities.  The MEA wasn’t interested in that discussion.

Other than the existence of a federal program that will do the same thing for the vast majority of the city’s teachers, the program agreed to doesn’t actually make student loan payments.  It simply gives those who can prove they have student loans the ability to get another $1,000 in salary from the district, capped at $40,000 in FY ‘ 21, $50,000 in FY ’22, and $60,000 in FY ’23.  Not only is there no requirement that eligible teachers use the money to make the payment on their student loans, because it’s paid as a salary stipend, the district will pay a premium of more than 25% on those funds to pay FICA and NH Retirement System taxes because it’s not actually a loan payment, it’s a salary increase.

ARTICLE EIGHT Retirement Supplement:  This contract gives teachers who missed the December 31st deadline to notify the district of their retirement in order to receive the district’s $7,000 retirement bonus until April 30th to give said notice.  Moreover, it gives into a major demand of the union by enabling teachers who have taught in Manchester for at least 15 years the ability to retire and leave with a $5,000 retirement payout plus up to sixty (60) days of unused sick time (See Article Twenty Sick Leave).  Given that Attorney Upton warned our committee and the prior board of pending government accounting rules changes that would eventually force the school district to FUND these UNFUNDED liabilities, which at last count totaled over $10 million, this is a truly jaw dropping concession that ignores a significant future financial liability that will affect the district.  The cost of allowing teachers to retire with this severance package after 15 years was not provided but it really can’t help the district’s unfunded liability.

ARTICLE NINE Teacher Employment:  It does look like the district achieved some limited improvement in its ability to assign teachers or arrange schedules for the benefit of students.  However, I would need an explanation of the language in order to be confident that the district achieved something worthwhile.

ARTICLE TEN Teacher Assignment:  Whatever flexibility it may have gained in Article Nine, the district gave it away in this article by narrowly defining “emergency” so that anything that doesn’t meet the definition will prevent the district from reassigning personnel as circumstances warrant.

ARTICLE TWELVE Teaching Hours and Teaching Load:  Building level administrators receive another set of handcuffs, preventing them from assigning duties to elementary school teachers that aren’t “safety related” before school starts.  If they are, then there’s a whole series of steps they have to go through to manage their circumstances.

What sticks out in this section are the proposals the district abandoned.  Proposals to increase instructional time, be it by changing the daily schedule and annual calendar to restore a 180 day student school year, or provide additional instruction time during the current 175 day student school year, or address the up to five paid days teachers get paid for if school is canceled due to weather without having to make them up or changes that would prevent the union from forcing school to start TWO days after Labor Day are no where to be found.  Given that Manchester students currently receive less instruction time than those in every neighboring district, if not the entire state, this is truly astounding.  It disadvantages our kids, who simply need more instructional time.

Not only are these proposals gone, union demands that any scheduled sick or personal time be restored if they happen to fall on a snow day are included in the contract.  Even better, someone receiving time from the “sick bank” will get paid without using a sick bank day if school is closed during “the first five school cancellation days.”  

This section also includes a proposal that will require almost $1.5 million of ONE TIME FUNDS in the current fiscal year to provide an additional three days of paid “professional development” in the CURRENT school year.  District negotiators FAILED, in return, to get desired changes requiring teachers to get approval for their professional development activities to ensure they were in line with district goals and objectives.  Frankly, you wouldn’t believe what constitutes “professional development,” especially when it’s “self-directed.”

You should also know that more than $1.5 million will be committed to another 3 days in the next school year.  Oh, they can get more bereavement time, too.

For the record, our committee discussed adding paid professional development days with the MEA.  However, we wanted to build them into the operating budget to ensure that the professional development was ongoing, sustainable and not subject to “one time funding.”  We successfully did this with the paraprofessionals‘ bargaining unit, providing them with much needed training, identifying the costs and ensuring they were financially sustainable.  Once these “one time funds” run out, the teachers will either lose those three days or the district will be under tremendous pressure to find a couple of million dollars within a tax cap budget or break the cap to provide what will, not doubt, be characterized as “critical training” the teachers just can’t do without.  This is a classic example of fiscal irresponsibility even before one considers what one time needs could have been met with that more than $3 million over the same period of time.  

ARTICLE NINETEEN Dues Decuction:  I’m not even sure how this is legal.  Based on the briefing we received on the US Supreme Court’s Janus Decision, I find it unbelievable that the contract recognizes the MEA’s bylaws as the governing document that determines when those who wish to leave the union will be allowed to stop paying dues.  As this reads, if those who leave don’t give notice by June 30, they’ll allowed to leave the union but will still  have to pay dues.  This is a backdoor, defacto agency fee, which the Supreme Court struck down.  The contract does nothing to require the union to notify members of this by-law requirement or the consequences of failing to meet it.  Teachers who wish to leave the union may only do so by sending written notice to the union vice-president, which will, not doubt, give the union VP the ability to “discuss” it with them beforehand. 

In light of the discussions we had with AFSCME Local 298 and Teamsters Local 633, which represents the paraprofessionals and the principals respectively, and the agreements we worked out with them, this section is truly dumbfounding.

ARTICLE TWENTY Sick Leave:. In addition to dealing with the school district’s massive unfunded liability with accrued sick time, the prior board and administration were committed to dealing with the rampant and evident abuse of sick time by teachers; abuse MEA negotiators privately admitted existed but publicly disputed.  Superintendent Goldhardt was in meetings with the Special Committee on Negotiations when some of these admissions were made, as was Attorney Upton, so it was particularly disheartening to see them fail to produce any meaningful changes in a system that actually encourages abuse.  Other than that, there’s little more than what amounts to a “stern talking to” about the negatives of rampant absenteeism.  

Yes, the finger wagging is tied to an evaluation as to whether or not it leads to a decrease in absenteeism between September 1, 2020 and April 15, 2021 versus the same time period for the prior year.  If absenteeism falls by a mere 5%, the finger wagging will continue.  If it doesn’t, the district “shall have the right to reopen the contract relative to cost items and sick leave.”  While that sounds like a “hammer,” it means nothing.  Reopening the contract does not compel the union to make any changes.  

One can only guess that the evaluation period stops on April 15th because absenteeism has a way of ramping up following April vacation, especially for those employees who have banked well more than the 90 days they can walk with at retirement, now 60 days for those who’ve “done their 15” before retiring.    Further, agreeing “that employees deemed to have abused sick leave may be disciplined” means little.  In negotiations with the Special Committee on Negotiations, the MEA argued it was up to the administration to “enforce” current contract provisions.  They also acknowledged those mechanisms were weak and admitted they would represent anyone who wanted to grieve any action the administration took.  This clause adds nothing to the contract to address sick time abuse.

In Section F the board’s negotiators did score a victory.  The board that governs the sick bank will now have an equal number of representatives from the administration and the union.  This is a huge improvement over the current system that has administrators outnumbered 3 to 1, meaning it’s a rubber stamp for whatever the union wants to do.  Assuming Superintendent Goldhardt appoints the right people, abuse of sick time via the sick bank, and there’s been plenty of it, could come to a halt.

ARTICLE TWENTY ONE Temporary Leaves of Absence: Section A.1. allows teachers to be granted additional personal days “in the event that both personal days are used for work restricted religious observances.”  Expect a “religious revival” similar to the one last year that saw exponential growth in teachers wanting Good Friday off.  Speaking of Good Friday, Section H removes it from the school calendar, unless “otherwise agreed,” if it falls on the day before the start of April vacation.  The contract currently disallows the use of personal days before a vacation or long weekend.

ARTICLE TWENTY SIX General:  Section I gives the union the right to reopen the contract for cost items in FY ’22 if the state increases Adequacy Aid or Stabilization Aid  “beyond any single biennium (on a sustained, ongoing and dependable basis with other than one time funds), by an annual amount that equals or exceeds Five Million Dollars ($5,000,000.00).  In other words, the teachers get first dibs on any money that comes from additional state aid.  While there is no guarantee that the district will “hand it over,” you can bet it will lead to Work to Rule or other job actions when the “unappreciated teachers” aren’t given what they demand.  It really is the perfect example of how the union puts itself ahead of all of district and student needs, most of which they complain about the district not sufficiently providing.

Now, the numbers.

In the current school year, this contract will cost over $3.1 million.  The Board of School Committee received $2.5 million from the Board of Mayor and Aldermen during the last budget to settle ALL of its six contracts.  Make no mistake, this blows not just the $1.3 million amount available for the MEA, but also the entire amount provided for all of the contracts.  That said, the school board’s negotiators and Mayor Craig say, with straight faces, that this contract stays within the tax cap and is “sustainable.”  To do this, they categorize more than $1.3 million in pay raises as “one time stipends” and another $1.5 million in additional compensation as “one time” professional development expenses.  Only $329,000 is added to the operating budget.  That comes from the difference between the last eleven pay checks teachers on steps 1 through 14 will receive after a 1.5% raise, effective April Fools Day until the end of August, and total payroll before that raise goes into effect.

The issue with these one time “stipend” characterizations is that the following year’s salaries do not roll back to the pre-stipend levels before the next school year’s pay raises are added to the budget.  In addition to the 1.5% given this fiscal year, there is a $1,000 stipend paid to everyone on step 15.  As mentioned, the total cost of these stipends consumes all the teachers share of the $2.5 million provided by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.  The $329,000 is on top of that, meaning the total exceeds the teacher’s tax cap allocation by that much, not including the $1.5 million for three paid professional development days.

In the next fiscal year, the district not only grants everybody a 3% raise outright, at a cost of $3.13 million, it layers on another $950,000 in one time “stipends.”  These stipends include the student loan stipends already discussed and a “one time” $600 “supply stipend” paid to ALL teachers.  That gem costs $716,000 PLUS $182,000 in FICA and NH Retirement System taxes.  You read that right.  Rather than create a fund that would reimburse teachers up to $600 to obtain supplies for their classrooms, they’re paying a “stipend” to every teacher regardless of whether or not they use it for supplies and they’re paying it out in the first paycheck of the coming school year.  Even if every teacher did spend the money on supplies, the district is paying another $182,000 because it is being paid as a salary, not a supply reimbursement.  Depending on where the teacher falls on the salary schedule, that adds anywhere from .7% to 1.6% to their 3% pay raise.  Score another $1.54 million in one time funds for paid professional development and the total increase going to salaries is a whopping $5.1 million.

If this contract passes, the district will increase teacher income by over $8.2 million or 11.5% between April 1, 2020 and August 30, 2021.  It doesn’t stop there, either.

In the following school year, there’s another 3% across the board increase at a cost of $2.8 million.

In fairness, there is a projected savings of $500,000 in FY ’21 from the changes to the health insurance.  The numbers also do not reflect, as the Special Committee on Negotiations’ numbers did, the reduction in budgeted salaries that come with the retirement of staff and their presumed replacement with newer teachers.  That might be intentional, though, given how many senior teachers were hired by the district for this school year.  Normally, new hires replacing retired teachers will cause a decrease in salaries of around $1 million.  However, this past year, senior teachers from around the state flocked to Manchester because its pay scale at the upper end is one of the better ones in the state and that was attractive to many whose communities were rejecting lucrative new contracts.

At the beginning of this article, indeed in the title, I said this contract wasn’t good for teachers and it’s not.  It does little to address the runaway absenteeism that has marred public perception of teachers and demonstrably impacted the quality of instruction for so many students.  It doesn’t require concessions demanded of other school district and city bargaining groups on health insurance.  It relies on over $5.2 million in one time funds over the next year and a half to work because the spending is wildly above both the tax cap and the district’s ability to pay.  It aggravates the district’s unfunded liability with accrued sick time.  It potentially, and likely illegally, sticks teachers who don’t want to be part of the union with a year of union dues if they miss the union’s unadvertised drop-out deadline.  It also falls short of offers that came from the Special Committee on Negotiations, which had higher starting pay for entry level teachers and restored as many as three steps for those who lost them to contract freezes, despite spending far more money on a net basis.  This contract takes care of those teachers at the top of the scale and does little for those newer teachers they so often claim need more.

In short, not only does this contract to produce little if any meaningful or necessary change, it actually worsens areas that need fundamental change while its proponents pretend it’s fiscally sustainable.  The district’s negotiators surrendered to buy peace with the union that, having run the table, will continue the tactics that clearly overcame weak-kneed administrators and a board populated with those it backed for office. This contract does nothing other than perpetuate the cycle of giving the store away to the union then complaining the shelves are bare because there’s no money to stock them.

It is my hope that the votes exist on the Board of Mayor and Aldermen to reject this contract and send both sides back to the table to negotiate a responsible, sustainable deal that addresses the fundamental and structural deficiencies that have so damaged our city’s schools for these many years.

~Richard H. Girard