Published DateLast Friday at dawn we buried one of our cats. He was perhaps the sweetest and most affectionate old guy I’ve ever known, but he had one dreadfully annoying fault. No matter how much love you gave him, he always wanted more. If you stopped petting him for a moment, he would begin nudging you or clawing his way onto your lap. If you shut a door on him, he would destroy it by trying to climb the panels. If you put him outdoors, even in the best weather, he would yowl, and whine, or climb the porch screens — striving to make you feel guilty, and obsessed with getting his own way by any means possible.
He reminded me of the Bartlett teachers and their raises. Having negotiated too sweet a deal, they lost their gamble at the annual meeting. Rather than accepting defeat and deciding to be more reasonable next year, they’re trying for a replay at a special school meeting — where they hope their own cheerleaders will overwhelm the typically light attendance of such events.
That’s the same slimy trick Conway teachers used to pull with each new contract, and it removed any incentive for reasonable negotiation. They would always aim for the sky, and when defeated they would call a special meeting, lowering their request ever-so-slightly. Even if they couldn’t dominate the first special meeting, they would eventually wear the voters down to a higher figure than any annual meeting would have approved. They seemed to deliberately provoke those special meetings, and sometimes it took several to get a new contract, until judges started refusing to authorize them because no “emergency” was involved. Ultimately a solid bloc of Conway citizens grew to hate the teachers collectively, and a decade passed before that ill will began to abate; now it may be on the ascent again.
Bartlett’s strategy might inspire Conway teachers to resume similar trickery, and Bartlett already exerts an adverse economic impact on Conway because the extraordinarily generous Bartlett contract makes Conway teachers envious. Bartlett teachers pay nothing for their no-deductible health insurance, but half of them already earn between $63,300 and $75,779 a year anyway, including several without graduate degrees. After such largesse, Principal Joe Voci’s sneering comment that the rejection of this year’s contract was “a slap in the face” to the teachers was, itself, an ungrateful insult to voters who had previously been so generous. Perhaps that generosity left Voci and his faculty disconnected from, or unsympathetic to, the economic realities of their community.
Voci himself may be a good example of the new acquisitive spirit in education. His base salary is $93,495 this year from the Bartlett School District (not counting lucrative retirement incentives, free health care and life insurance, etc.), but on top of that, he is reputedly still moonlighting regularly as a waiter and/or bartender. No amount of money will satisfy some of those working in education, and juicy compensation packages can’t even assure that those earning them will devote all their vocational energies to their main jobs. When teachers with combined municipal incomes over $100,000 complain that they work several other jobs just to make ends meet, that testifies to both their expensive tastes and the abundant free time their supposedly grueling jobs allow.
Meanwhile, across-the-board percentage raises in the public sector fuel discontent by speedily inflating many salaries beyond reason. Superintendent Carl Nelson’s notorious 3.6-percent raise this year yielded $3,960, bringing his total salary to $113,963 — more than four times the pay of a Bartlett rookie, despite getting no raise last year. In 2010, Conway’s novice librarian ferociously protected staff raises from budget cuts, and for good reason: about half the entire budget for raises went straight to her, because she had been hired at such a high salary. Thanks to percentage-based “merit” increases, she should already be drawing more now than the 40-year veteran she replaced in 2009.
With every new contract, percentage raises also steadily widen the gap between the lowest-paid and highest paid employees. Evenly distributed, a 3.6-percent raise would broaden the $82,003 salary gap between Carl Nelson and the starting Bartlett teacher to $84,955. The rich get richer while the poor get poorer.
With teacher salaries already high in Bartlett, the raises themselves may have become unsustainable, especially when negotiations lean so heavily the teachers’ way. One need not be a Republican to understand why Wisconsin reelected Scott Walker — or why Bartlett voters refused their teachers’ demands.
William Marvel lives in South Conway.