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Governor, lawmakers: reform Triborough

In many areas across the state, news reports about public school teachers’ raises (some approaching 4 percent or more) during these recessionary times are prompting the public to ask, "Why don’t school districts simply hold the line on spending like the private sector?"

Strange as it sounds, New York law actually restricts school districts from restraining or cutting spending, thanks to something called the Triborough Amendment.

Triborough applies to New York public employees. It’s part of the Taylor Law, enacted in the late 1960s to eliminate strikes by public employees such as police, firefighters and teachers. While it has been very effective in doing that, it has done so at a very steep cost.

Triborough requires that the terms of a union contract remain in force until a new contract is agreed upon. This is dramatically different from rules governing labor negotiations in the private sector. So when a contract between a teachers union and a school district expires, the terms of that expired contract continue unchanged until both sides agree on a new contract.

Consequently, many contracts today contain provisions agreed to years or even decades ago. One that’s common in teacher contracts provides for "step" increases. These are automatic annual salary increases based on longevity. These step increases occur even when a contract has expired.

Another of the major cost drivers in school budgets is health insurance, which once was much less costly than it is now. When health insurance was cheaper, most school districts and even many private employers provided it to their employees while paying most, if not all, of the cost.

As health insurance premiums escalated year after year, most private employers required their employees to absorb a larger portion of the cost. But in public schools, where the terms of a contract remain in force until both parties agree to the terms of a new contract, only minimal changes have occurred. Under Triborough, schools have little or no bargaining power to get union employees to accept reduced coverage or pay a greater percentage of their health insurance costs.

To secure concessions from teachers on health insurance, school districts are forced to provide something valuable in return. So schools resort to "buybacks." As you can guess, little or nothing is gained by the school district in the way of overall cost reduction.

While the public demands that school districts "drive a harder bargain," the reality is that Triborough makes it impossible. Triborough essentially requires that employees be compensated for any contract concessions they make, regardless of current economic conditions.

School districts are under increasing pressure to reduce costs. But they will never be able to significantly slow the growth in employee salaries and benefits unless and until Triborough is reformed.

New York’s school districts do not have the power to change the Triborough Amendment. Only the governor and state Legislature can. Shifting the ever-rising cost of public education from the state to the local taxpayer is not a practical option. It’s time for the governor and Legislature to reform Triborough.

Lawrence M. Cummings is executive director of the Central New York School Boards Association.

 

4/23/10 (c) 2010 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail rbj@rbj.net.

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