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Teacher raises rankle council

By Evan Allen
Globe Correspondent / October 9, 2011

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Anger over pay raises for teachers in a year marked by townwide salary freezes and job losses came to a head last week when Franklin’s Town Council voted unanimously to reopen hearings on the town budget nearly four months after approving it, a move that Town Administrator Jeffrey Nutting described as “extremely unusual.’’

The vote allows the council to reexamine the school budget, and gives it the option of taking money from the district’s account and allocating it to other parts of the town budget, such as for the Police or Fire departments.

At issue is $525,000 worth of pay increases spread over two years. Under the contract that was negotiated between the School Committee and the Franklin Educational Association, the district’s teachers received a 1 percent pay increase as of Sept. 1, totaling about $350,000 in the current fiscal year.

On Aug. 30, 2012, they are slated to receive another 0.5 percent raise, or about $175,000 in the 2013 fiscal year.

This year’s raises are being paid for with money the school system received from the state under a “circuit breaker,’’ which reimburses districts for some special education costs, an amount that can vary each year.

This year, Franklin received about $600,000 more than usual - a boon that, town councilors note, can’t be counted on to be repeated in the future.

“They have agreed to provide perpetual raises with onetime, nonrecurring funds. It’s on the backs of the taxpayers next year to take a shot in order to continue those raises,’’ said Scott Mason, the Town Council’s chairman

“I see this incredible erosion of credibility when on one hand you’re giving teachers a pay raise, and then you’re asking voters for money because there’s not enough to support what we have in the school system.

“I see more cuts coming up in future years as a result of this,’’ Mason said.

School Committee members were not present at last week’s meeting, a fact that Town Council members described as disappointing.

Jeffrey Roy, chairman of the School Committee, defended the pay increases in a phone interview. He said that in return for the raises, the teachers union agreed to three long-term cost-saving measures.

First, he said, they agreed to drop litigation over the length of the school day, which, last year, cost the school district about $120,000 to fight. Roy said he would have expected the legal wrangling to drag on for at least one more year.

Second, the teachers agreed to interest-based bargaining for their next contract, which, Roy said, is a departure from typically aggressive bargaining and is more likely to lead to compromise.

Finally, he said, the union agreed to open a discussion on the salary table, which is used to determine each teacher’s pay based on a series of steps and lanes.

Teacher pay increases are based not on merit, but on seniority and level of education, which, Roy said, can be a “budget buster.’’

The Franklin Educational Association’s agreement to discuss eliminating some of the categories that lead to pay increases is, Roy says, a “tremendous victory’’ in and of itself, and, if talks are successful, could save the town hundreds of thousands of dollars down the road.

“If you look at the big picture and have a deeper understanding of why we did what we did, you’ll see it’s a very well-reasoned approach,’’ he said.

He’s upset with the Town Council’s decision to reopen the budget.

“I don’t think the council is being respectful of our autonomy and authority to do this,’’ he said. “What I’m going to do personally is I’m campaigning to be a member of the Town Council, because I think somebody needs to get on that body and serve on that body to remind them of their obligations.’’

The council reached its decision after a long and heated discussion Wednesday night.

They approved the School Committee’s budget in June, the members said, without knowing about the raises, which weren’t voted into effect until Sept. 27, after the School Committee knew the town was getting the circuit-breaker funds.

Town Council member Shannon Zollo said that because the raises weren’t written into the budget that was approved in June, and because no one from the School Committee mentioned that they were a possibility, his vote had been based in part on “misinformation or omitted information.’’

Roy, however, maintains that had anyone asked for a formal budget presentation during budget hearings last spring, he would “absolutely’’ have told the council that the School Committee was considering giving raises to teachers.

He called the council’s decision not to ask for such a hearing “shocking.’’ “If anybody had bothered to ask they certainly would have gotten an indication of ‘here’s where we’re at.’ We would have informed them that we were looking at additional circuit-breaker money that will fund these raises,’’ he said.

Mason acknowledges he should have asked for a presentation, but he said he did not because he thought that the school budget didn’t include raises.

“Ultimately, shame on us, as a council, because it’s our job to know these things and we didn’t,’’ said Mason. “The bottom line is, we know about it now. It’s our responsibility as a council to go in and correct this mistake. My belief is that we would not have approved the school department’s budget if we had known that in advance.’’

The municipal budget for this fiscal year includes the elimination of 17 town positions, including two police officers and two firefighters, and no raises for any town employees.

The school budget, too, called for the elimination of 14 positions, but Roy says that some of the circuit-breaker money will be used to save some of those positions, though he’s not yet sure how many.

Nutting estimated that the raises given out last month could have been used to pay the salaries of about six teachers.

“They sold those teachers down the river. Those jobs could have been saved,’’ said council member Joseph McGann. “If I’m elected come November, and the School Committee comes up here for their budget and their bottom line is ‘Y,’ I’m gonna say, ‘You deduct $525,000 from your budget because you’re gonna hide it and you’re gonna use it for something else.’ ’’

The newly reopened budget will be on the agenda for the next council meeting on Oct. 26, when members are slated to discuss whether to take funds out of the school budget. With town elections looming on Nov. 8, they don’t have a lot of time to work things out before a new council and School Committee take over.

There was no consensus about whether any cuts will actually be made. The teachers’ raises are permanent; cutting the school budget won’t get rid of them. “It would be a punitive cut,’’ said Roy. “If the council cut, the raises would stay. We’d have to reduce in other areas.’’

No one on the council is happy about the situation.

“We talk about teamwork and needing to work together,’’ said Mason, “but this is an example of two governing bodies that are completely apart on a very important issue.’’