Coup De ‘Ville: Teachers pact seems fair

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If nobody won, maybe we all did; and an issue that seems to be united southeast PA Republicans and Democrats

By Mike McGann, Editor, UnionvilleTimes.com
That quiet you hear (or don’t) is the much-awaited peace following the deal being finalized between Unionville’s teachers and the school district.

I honestly expected more in the way of kicking about the deal — yeah, I’m well aware of Paul Price’s issues with the contract and I’ll touch on those in a minute.

Yes, I think that some of the quiet is fatigue. Everyone involved, including those of us who had to write about it, were kind of “contracted-out” and ready to think about something else for weeks already, so that may be part of it. But I suspect the bigger part of it is that neither side was able to declare victory. There doesn’t appear to be a seething “loser” side sworn to get even next time, which bodes well for the next time this process happens, starting in 2013.

Not that either side thinks it’s a perfect deal: the district thinks it gave too much on salary and seniority; the teachers think they gave up too much on health care and work rules. Both sides gave and both sides got, which is really how the process is supposed to work.

So what’s it mean?

Financially, I think it’s a better deal for the school district and taxpayers than is generally realized. Setting aside the pension issue that Price and a few others have focused on, health care cost containment is enormous, while at the same time, the teachers got a lot of options to match up with their families and needs.

All things considered, it seems like a pretty fair deal, even if it took longer to happen than many of us would have liked.

So what to make of Paul Price’s doom and gloom projections?

Well, as they say in the programming world, GIGO, which stands for “garbage in, garbage out.” Using any financial model, you can get it to output pretty much whatever result you want. If you put in lousy numbers, you get lousy results.

Much of Price’s issue come from the Public School Employees Retirement System, which is scheduled to see it’s contribution rate climb seriously over the next few years (although the growth rate is capped by legislation). In fairness, other versions of the same financial model, using careful fiscal trims, as advocated by Board of Education Finance Chair Keith Knauss, show a much less dire fiscal outcome, even if PSERS turns out to be the fiscal mess projected.

Understand, that I believe Price is genuine in his concerns, not engaging in political grandstanding. While I think he understands the numbers, I don’t think he fully understands the human aspect — politics — and how it drives the process, rather the just ones and zeroes.

But, for the sake of argument, lets assume none of Knauss’ fiscal measures get put into place.

Is PSERS a threat to bankrupt the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District?

Yes, if left unchecked, it could produce exactly the numbers that Price describes.

But this is where you have to put down the spreadsheet and concern yourself with human nature. Assuming PSERS contributions are going to spike, Gov. Tom Corbett and the state legislature — which, by the way, are on the hook for half of the school pension payments made by school districts — are left with three choices:

A: Do nothing, and see how a multi-billion state deficit and exploding school tax rates play as we head into the 2014 elections.

B: Tell the school districts that the state will no longer match the 50% state match, citing state budget problems and watch school tax rates explode and the governor and state legislature — again, heading into reelection — get the very public blame.

C: Come up with some sort of one-time cash infusion to slow the rate hikes and take the pressure off, not really solving the problem, but cushioning the hard-landing, declaring victory and moving on. Some have already targeted the sale of the state liquor stores as a source of said revenue — and it seems to have at least a little traction in Harrisburg, especially if it can be tied to further pension reform and benefit cuts to new enrollees.

If you’re guessing “C” at home, you’ve been paying attention.

You’ll recall that the state legislature saved the governor from himself, restored a lot of school funding and managed to make the budget work. With some good reason, members were worried that voters might not embrace fairly large school funding cuts and make them pay during the 2012 election cycle.

From a purely political standpoint, you have to assume that Corbett, a Republican governor in a state with a one-million-plus Democratic voter registration edge, has to be looking at keeping all those moderate to conservative Democrats and independents in his corner. Cutting school funding and causing large local school tax hikes probably isn’t a good way to do that.

With the governor facing a bit of a revolt within his own party in the southeast portion of the state (more on that in a moment) he might need all the elective help he can get.

And, in truth, the state legislature passed and Gov. Tom Ridge signed the 2001 legislation that caused most of the pension mess, so this Gov. Tom and the legislature  has at least some moral responsibility to fix it, rather than fobbing it off on local school boards and property tax payers.

This, of course, is Pennsylvania. Politics always trumps morals — but when you see the rare time that they’re both on the same side, you can bet the house.

* * *

The Governor and a local state senator, (and Senate Majority Leader) Dominic Pileggi are championing a change to how presidential electors are doled out. Instead of winner-take-all for Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes (down from 21 after the 2010 U.S. Census), they’d like to select them on the basis which candidate won which congressional districts (two would still be selected by state-wide votes — as our US Senators are).

While, predictably, Democrats are screaming — Pennsylvania has gone Democratic in every Presidential election since 1988 — there’s a lot of Republicans, including State GOP Chair Rob Gleason, who are less than amused.

Why? Such a change would mean big money rolling into borderline congressional districts such as the Sixth — which Pocopson is in — and the Seventh, which Chadds Ford is in (assuming the redistricting goes the way it appears), expanded “get out the vote (GOTV)” efforts in the counties surrounding Philadelphia from the big organized labor political action committees. That could put a number of state legislative seats in play that would otherwise be little more than a long shot.

Interestingly, with Pileggi himself up for reelection in 2012 here in the 9th Senatorial District, it puts a big target on his back and becomes a national fundraising base for an opponent, like the already-declared former State Rep. Tom Houghton. Despite the current economic conditions and Democrats polling kind of poorly right now, this could turn a longshot race into a full-on furfight.

Honestly, I don’t get the thinking here. Sure, in a perfect world, a strong argument could be made for having all of the Electoral Votes based on Congressional District, nationwide. Although such a method was used early and in most states, it seemed to be an issue — resulting in most states (with the exception of Maine and Nebraska) switching to all-or-nothing formats by the early 1800s.

It’s one thing to look at rewokring the entire Electoral College — which based on 2000 and 1876, is far from a perfect system. But doing it to just Pennsylvania in the northeast turns us into, well, Delaware, which offers three electoral votes — about the net expected to any presidential candidate to come from the commonwealth under this plan (Obama would have won by 1, instead of 21 in 2008, had this plan been in effect). An afterthought. A joke. All while New Jersey, New York, Maryland and Virginia continue to flex their collective political muscle.

It’s bad enough that our primaries are a joke in the presidential process, typically coming after the nominees have been selected. At least Pennsylvanians could enjoy the idea that they’d have a major role in The Big Dance in November, enjoying the status of Ohio and Florida as national tipping points. Changing that means less of a place at the table when it comes to getting federal funding for things like highways and flood control, by the way, as pols of both parties know they don’t have to troll for votes here.

So to recap: this idea could potentially put numerous local Republican officials at risk of losing elections, drastically increase the influence of Philadelphia union GOTV money here in the suburbs and render Pennsylvania irrelevant in Presidential politics.

Personally, I love it.

It will mean much, much more to write about in even-numbered years and probably a big spike in political advertising and readership. Much in the way that I sort of empathize with global warming because it would be nice to be closer to the beach and have palm trees around my pool, I do get that it would be bad for most other folks, of course. Good for me, personally, terrible for most Pennsylvanians.

That’s why the editorial “we” here can point out what a lame-brained idea this is.

Even if it made a modicum of sense, which it just doesn’t, aren’t there bigger and more pressing issues than this in Pennsylvania?

***

You’ll have the opportunity, potentially, to ask that question of Sen. Pileggi yourself Sunday when he’s likely to be in town for Pocopson Founders Day, Sunday, noon to 4 p.m.

While you’re at it, you may be able to see him get totally schooled when it comes to cow milking by our own local State Rep., Steve Barrar. All kidding aside, I’m always amazed that this Delaware-County born-bred guy, Barrar, milks cows like he grew up on a Unionville dairy farm — he puts every other elected official to shame, although I’m curious to see if Ryan Costello, our newest Chester County Commissioner, and a native of East Vincent, where a few cows have been known to roam, is able to give Barrar some competition.

Cow-milking aside, Founders’ Day is a blast — lots of great food, fun for the kids and a great way to celebrate Pocopson Township. The Unionville Times will have a booth this year, so stop by, say hello, and maybe sign up our e-newsletter and for the gift basket we’re giving away.

If you live in the township (or just wish you did), c’mon down and enjoy what looks to be  a perfect fall afternoon — and you won’t even miss the Eagles, who play Sunday night.

***

If you know (or are) an eligible high school student, you’ll want to make sure to remember this:

Tuesday, September 27, is the sign up day for the classroom portion of drivers education at Unionville High School. This is the one and only day to sign up for the evening/afternoon class. Bring your sign up sheet (now available in the main office) and your check for $300. This fee gets your student the classroom instruction as well as the in-car portion.

Any student needing to take in-car drivers instruction after taking the classroom portion, may sign up in the main office. In-car instruction takes place all year round including the summer months.

Questions may be directed to the UHS main office at 610-347-1600.

The classroom portion is now free to students, although the in-car training is invaluable to teaching young drivers the skills they need for driving the challenging roads we have here in the Unionville area. Please don’t let this date pass by without taking action.

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4 Comments

  1. Brian says:

    I find it disturbing that this article is putting so much faith in what state government may or may not do. Have we learned nothing from this financial crisis? We, the School District (= Taxpayers) must take control of our financial situation. Leaving it to the state or other public officials is passing the buck and more of the same wishfull thinking that got us into this mess.

    • Mike McGann says:

      Brian,

      Don’t mistake faith for my cynicism that Gov. Tom and the state legislature will do whatever they think they need to do to save their elective skin. The pension issue is one not created by local school boards (although they probably would have been well served to set aside some reserve funds), but by the state legislature and Gov. Tom Ridge — and it a problem that has to be solved, ultimately, in Harrisburg.
      Either it gets solved in Harrisburg, or the problems we as a commonwealth face, will be a lot bigger than scary high local tax rates, that’s all I’m saying here. My bet is a band-aid approach of sorts — which is what I’m hearing has support.

  2. You incorrectly stated, “So what to make of Paul Price’s doom and gloom projections?”

    The projections I sited are those that came directly from Robert Cochran, UCFSD’s Business manager. He projects almost $6 million in deficit spending in the four years following the new contract and a 99.83% depletion of the District’s Reserve Fund balance.

    If you imply that those numbers are “garbage in-garbage out” then we should fire Mr. Cochran (one of the highest paid people in the District) for gross incompetence.

    In another related, budget-busting move, he is now recommending that the District buy six brand new buses at a cost of north of $100,000 more than had been previously reserved for this purchase. That will further deplete the reserve fund from the most recent projections that HE made.

    By the way, Mr. Knaus has not made any competing budget projections- He has merely ‘pulled an Obama’ by saying “Don’t worry – it’s paid for and won’t add one dime to the deficit.” All without giving any details about how that fairly tale will be accomplished.

    This Board’s head-in-the-sand attitude towards spending (and your own editiorial view that somehow our (also bankrupt) State level politicians will simply ‘bail us out’ is no substitute for actually planning soundly for the future.

    My You-tube video on subject of personnel costs taking a larger and larger piece of the total budget has been viewed by almost 200 people. It specifically requested comments from anybody that thought it had flaws in its logic.

    Not one person could punch a hole in the theory that too high salaries and benefits can only come at the expense of everything else (barring huge property tax increases.

    • Keith Knauss says:

      It’s interesting how Dr. Price and I can look at the same information and come to two completely different conclusions.

      Dr. Price is correct in stating that the 5 year projection results in an almost zero fund balance and a $2M per year operating deficit. The projection tells us that the conservative assumptions used in the model won’t work and there is a problem. We both agree on that.

      But here’s where Dr. Price and I differ. Dr. Price would solve the problem by rejecting the teacher contract and put us on the path to continued labor strife – work to rule, a strike, TV cameras, the negative effect on our children’s education, and loss of UCFSD’s reputation resulting in lower property values.

      Alternatively, I would support the teacher contract, enjoy labor harmony and solve the projected deficit in exactly the same way we managed through the last two years. Not by raising taxes above the Act 1 Index, but by carefully managing our finances. Let’s remember the 5 year projection, BY DESIGN, used conservative assumptions. We wanted to model something close to a worst case situation. So, let’s make sure our actual behavior in the future is different than the behavior assumed in the projection. Isn’t that why we run projections?

      Any combination of efficiency gains (similar to what we did with the transportation study and the B&G study), employee head count reduction (we employ 3% fewer teachers today than we did 20 months ago), or modest terms for the next contract starting in 2013 (a one-year wage freeze with health care concessions similar to what is found in our current contract) would balance the budget for the next 5 years. In other words, we can enjoy labor harmony, have everyone focus on education and balance the future budget by just by continuing the conservative fiscal practices of the last two years.
      .
      The sky is not falling.

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