top of page
  • Writer's pictureMike Zilles

COLAs, Step Increases, and the Budget

Dear Colleagues,


Below, as promised....

COLAs, Step Increases, and the Budget


The school committee says:We have been unable to come to agreement with the NTA on the rate of future pay increases. Despite many proposals and counter-proposals, we are very far apart—deeply far apart—in both how teachers are compensated when they increase their years of service by a year (step) and what they receive as a cost of living adjustment( COLA) on top of that.”


Let’s begin by sussing out what exactly this statement means.


First of all, we are not negotiating steps. The school committee has no proposal on the table to reduce the amount of compensation awarded in each step increase, and the NTA has no proposal on the table to increase the compensation awarded in each step increase. The only proposal on the table is to move the anniversary date for when the step increase is awarded back from December to September. The cost of moving the anniversary date back one month is $180,000. The cost of a 1% COLA is nearly ten times that much.


So when the school committee says that we are very apart “in both how teachers are compensated when they increase their years of service by a year (step) and what they receive as a cost of living adjustment (COLA) on top of that,” what are they really saying? They are certainly not talking about anything specific we are negotiating, other than the COLAs.


What they really are up to is the old the trick of adding together the step increase a member receives with their cost of living increase in order to say: “Look how much these people’s salaries are going up. We are in fact being very generous, and our employees are paid quite competitively. Therefore the COLAs we are offering are adequate and perfectly reasonable."


Well, no. Every district across the state provides educators compensation increases based on years of experience (steps), as well as educational attainment (lanes), (which the school committee doesn’t mention.) They know this is universally true, and they know their current contractual obligations require them to pay members for their step increases and, if they qualify, for lane changes based on educational attainment.


And this happens across the state because it makes sense. An educator right out of college with no experience and a bachelors degree should not earn the same salary as a fifteen year veteran with a doctorate or a masters degree and 20 additional graduate level courses under their belt.


COLAs are different, and they know this too. A cost of living adjustment must be made to the whole salary scale—every step in every lane—so that both present and future employees on those steps see their earnings keep up with inflation. That means three years from now a sixth year teacher with a masters degree shouldn’t earn any less in terms of inflation adjusted real wages than a sixth year teacher with a masters degree is earning right now. Preferably they would earn more, since educators are underpaid compared to other professionals with similar levels of skill, education, and responsibility. But that isn't even part of the conversation.


It’s disgraceful how willing the school committee is to mislead the public about this. Here is the example they present:


Example 1 - Classroom Teacher (Unit A) on Step 5 with a Master’s Degree

Current Salary

Proposed Increase in December 2023

Proposed Increase in December 2024

Proposed Increase in November 2025

$72,556

$76,243

$81,383

$85,857

5.1% annual increase

6.7% annual increase

5.5% annual increase

$3,687 increase

$5,140 increase

$4,474 increase

The school committee fails to mention that….

  • This classroom teacher on step 5 with a Master’s degree is a five (5) year veteran teacher. They would have been hired five years ago and been placed on step 1. After they were hired, however, the bottom step was dropped from the scale and then the scales were renumbered. Step six became step five. In any other district, this “classroom teacher” — or special education teacher, or social worker, or counselor--would be on step 6.

  • In every other district across the state, the step increase is awarded in September, not December. Therefore, this teacher only receives 75% of the step increase she earned for her last year of service.

  • The actual cost of living adjustments portion of the annual increase for years one, two and three are only 1.5%, 1.6%, and 1.6%, respectively, a far cry from 5.1%, 6.7%, and 5.5%.

The school committee is also not sharing what each of our respective proposals are regarding COLAs. They need not be a secret, so here they are:


NTA July 20th Proposal for Units A (teachers, counselors, etc.), B (administrators), and E (IT and other professional services)

Year

Stepping

Top Step

1

4.3%

4.5%

2

3.6%

3.8%

3

3.6%

3.8%

NTA July 20th Proposal for Units C (aides and behavior therapists) and D (substitutes)

Year

Stepping

Top Step

1

6%

6%

2

4.5%

4.5%

3

4.5%

4.5%

NTA July 20th Proposal for Coaches Salaries and Stipends

Year

Stepping

1

4.5%

2

3.8%

3

3.8%

NPS July 20th Proposal for Units A, B, and E

Year

Stepping

Top Step

1

1.5%

1.9%

2

1.6%

2.0%

3

1.6%

2.1%

NPS July 20th Proposal for Units C and D

Year

Stepping

Top Step

1

1.6%

1.9%

2

1.7%

2.0%

3

1.8%

2.0%

Over the past four years, the gains made in what felt like a great contract in 2019 have been eaten up by inflation. In 2022 alone, inflation increased prices by 8.2%, as reflected in the amount the Social Security Administration adjusted social security pensions in January of 2023. All told, the real earning power of NTA members has declined by approximately 7%. And I doubt that this amount factors in that our health insurance premiums will go up by as much as $1,100 next year.


Even our own proposal doesn’t get us back to where we were in 2019, especially with inflation still running hot. Yet even as districts across the state are offering compensation packages that are much more generous than Newton’s, the school committee insists they can do no better….and tries to fudge the data to imply they are doing better than they are!


In addition to fudging the data, the school committee engages in public scare tactics: Increasing what they pay educators, they say, would result, in "[larger] class sizes, [fewer] electives and arts programs, and [less] support to the average classroom and building.”


And then, of course, there’s the "magic number" dance. "When the School Committee’s budget grows at a rate of more than 3.5% per year, we are forced to seek additional sources of funding such as the recent operating override, which voters rejected, or to make cuts in staff, programs and services.”


So says Mayor Fuller, and when she speaks, the school committee dances the dance. But where does this magic number 3.5% come from? And do the schools really adhere to it?


I’ve watched this magic number dance before, and so have most of you. I remember when, in 2013, I sat in a room with the presidents of all the employee unions in Newton and listened to Maureen Limieux, the city's chief financial officer, explain to us, as if it were just a financial fact of life, why the city and school’s budgets could not increase more than 2.5% a year because property tax revenue increases were capped at 2.5% per year. So then, the magic number was 2.5%, because, we were told, that was all the property tax revenues could go up.


Maureen Limieux's presentation didn’t go over very well with any of the union presidents, especially since the city had just passed a two and a half override that year before that brought in nearly 8.4 million dollars in new revenues for the city’s operating budget and the new Zervas school, and 3 million dollars in new revenues to pay for Cabot and Angier.


Back then, this craziness actually used to appear in the budget as "multi-year forecasts." I had to go back and check to see if I wasn't the crazy one, and had just misremembered this, but, sure enough, there it was in the 2014 budget book. The budget "forecast" cloudy skies, rain and thunderstorms....sorry....it forecast an increase of 5% in the budget the year after the 2013 successful override, then for the next four years 3%, 2.5%, 2.5%, and 2.5%. Of course, the budget always went up much more than this, so by 2017, the "magic number" was changed to 3.5%


If these numbers are meaningless gobbledygook to you, well, that's because they are. The school budget always goes up more than 2.5% or 3.5%--eventually, even if that means the mayor infuses "one time funds" into the budget to "help the schools out." So what is the real purpose of these numbers?


If you’ve been in Newton for very long, you will remember that this was the same year that Matt Hills, as chair of the school committee and its negotiations team, offered us zero percent increases in salary. And there you have it: the school committee just had to keep under that 2.5% cap in negotiations, even though David Fleishman, as superintendent, hired over 200 new employees. Or maybe they had to offer us zeros because David Fleishman had hired over 200 new employees?


So is there a magic number? Well of course, there has to be some upward limit on what the city and schools spend. Of course there have to be fiscal restraints. But in 2013, Maureen Limieux claimed the upward limit was a 2.5% increase, because this percentage purported to reflect what property tax revenues went up every year under the constraints of proposition two and a half.


So how much do property tax revenues in Newton go up each year? Is it actually 3.5%, not 2.5%, and is that why the city and schools changed their forecasts?


No. Each year property tax revenues go up a lot more than 3.5%. For the past three years, they’ve gone up well over 5% per year. In 2020, they went up 5.5%. In 2021, they went up 5.9%. From 2010, they've gone up on average 4.6% per year. And from 2003, they have been going up an average of 4.4% per year.


They have been going up faster in recent years because of all the new development happening in Newton, on large and small scales, and that does not seem to be changing. In fact, revenues were so good this past year that the city accumulated nearly 30 million dollars in “free cash”—that is, surplus revenues.


Put this in perspective: if the NPS budget had actually gone up as much as property tax revenues did over the past four years of our current contract, there would have been no need to cut the budget AT ALL. In fact, the NPS would be in a very strong financial position. And the NTA contract proposals would be well within the schools fiscal constraints.


But that is not the case. Because for both Mayor Fuller and the School Committee, their real magic number has nothing to do with property tax revenues, or anything real in their bottom line. Their real magic number is 2%. They NEVER want to negotiate a contract again that includes COLAs that are higher than 2%, no matter what the increase in the cost of living the COLA actually has to adjust for.


Back in 2007, 2008, and 2009, the city formed a number of panels of “citizen experts,” which included Ruthanne Fuller and Paul Levy, to advise the city and schools on how to tighten their budgets. All the technocratic drudgery aside, the primary “insight” of the panels was that the city should no longer award public employees 3% cost of living adjustments, and had to limit these to 2%.


That's why they never have“enough” money—because they don’t want to compensate us any more than they already do, and they certainly don't want to raise our salaries more than 2%. Instead, they tell the public: We already pay educators in Newton more than educators in Framingham, Waltham, Dedham, Natick, Bedford and Arlington. They should be happy with what we give them.


That said, the school committee’s muddling together of steps and COLAs shouldn’t fool anyone. Their claim that an Educational Support Professional earning $30,000 next year is well-compensated shouldn’t fool anyone. Their repeated claims that they need to practice austerity in negotiations shouldn’t fool anyone. Their willingness to obfuscate and lie about what is really happening in negotiations shouldn’t fool anyone.


The school committee claims that “the difference between the NTA’s and the School Committee’s proposals for “rate of pay” increases is currently insurmountable.”


Instead of fighting with us, they should be fighting with the mayor for the funding the Newton Public Schools need. They should be asking: Does the city need a $30 million dollar surplus every year, or does it need to pay for excellent schools, which includes compensating Newton educators fairly?


But perhaps they prefer to continue putting themselves in the humiliating position of fighting with us, and begging from the mayor. Because after the contract is settled, the mayor will continue paying for initiatives, and building projects, and making sure the schools get most of what they need, as long as she can continue to take credit where no credit is due, and tsk tsk the school committee for their profligacy.


The differences between our proposals and the school committee’s are not insubstantial. But they are also not insurmountable.To surmount these differences, as I’ve said before, the school committee has to stop playing legal and political games, and get to the hard work of bargaining: listening, compromising, and focusing on the best interests of everyone in the Newton community. Overheated rhetoric, novel legal theories, and misleading characterizations of where each side currently stands in negotiations won’t cut it.


The NTA stands ready, as always, to bargain in good faith.


Next, Threatened Work Stoppages.



In solidarity,


Mike Zilles

Comments


bottom of page