Save Westfield Schools Finds Flawed Logic in Flaherty's Contract Analysis


In the past, Councilor Flaherty has frequently stated his concern that step and track increases lead to spiraling, out of control teacher salaries. But a close inspection of how step and track increases work reveal that this is not the case. In fact, if step/track increases remain frozen, as they were this year, they end up costing the city no extra money from year to year. Before we explain how this can be, it might be helpful for our readers to understand what step and track increases are and why teachers and many other kinds of workers, receive them.

Step increases are increases to the base salary of teachers. Step increases are given to workers on the principle that as they gain more experience in their field, they are more valuable than workers with less experience. Many different kinds of workers, public and private, receive step increases. A new teacher in Westfield, with a Master's degree, will earn $38,835 the first year. Each year thereafter, the teacher will receive a step increase to their salary. Teachers receive a total of 11 step increases throughout their careers. After the last step increase, a teacher with a Master's degree will be earning $61,806. This works out to an average salary increase of a little over 4% per year. After the last step increase, teachers receive no further step increases.

Teachers can, however, earn more money for educating themselves. That's where so-called "track increases" come in to play. A track increase is given to teachers who are better educated based on a theory that they are better teachers. The same teacher who makes $61,806 with a Master's will make $71,627 for having a Doctorate's degree.

At first glance, it might seem that giving all teachers with less than 12 years of experience 4% increases each year and even more money for advanced degrees could get very expensive. Flaherty believes this to be the case as he demonstrated in another recent email exchange with SWS when he wrote: "They get 4% on average every year for the fist 15 years or so, then 1 or 2% after that - assuming there are never an [sic] adjustments to the rates. 4% is higher than the 2.5% we can raise from local taxes, therefore other programs and services have to be cut in order to balance the budget."

But once we closely examine and think about his statement, we can uncover problems with his assumptions, logic, and facts:

Flaherty: "They get 4% on average every year for the first 15 years or so..."
While this is a rather minor point, he is incorrect. There are a total of 11 step increase through the first 12 full years of employment, not 15.

Flaherty: "...then 1 or 2% after that..."
Here, Flaherty is talking about the longevity benefit for teachers who work 14 years or more in Westfield schools. Since we're talking about step and track increases, it's not germane to our discussion here. But for the record, longevity benefit increases are not given every year, but only every 5 years or so according to the following schedule:

Years of Service in Westfield Schools

Longevity Pay

Increase

14 years

$900

$900 more than those with 13 years or less.

1.2% to 1.5% depending on degree earned 

15-19 years$1400

$500 more than those with 14-19 years of service

.69% to .80% depending on degree earned

20-24 years

$1,750

$350 more than those with 15-19 years of service

.48% to .55%, depending on degree earned 

25-29 year

$2,500

$750 more than those with 20-24 years of service

1.0% to 1.2%, depending on degree earned

30 or more years

$3,200

$700 more than those with 25-29 years of service 

.94% to 1.1% depending on degree earned

As you can see, Flaherty is wrong when he says teachers receive 1 to 2% every year in longevity pay. It's actually .5% to 1.5% about every 5 years and then no raise, ever, after 30 years.

Flaherty: "...assuming there are never an [sic] adjustments to the rates."
This is the same assumption we make in our analysis below. We assume that step increases and track increases remain frozen as they are with no cost of living adjustments either. We are on the same page with Flaherty here.

Flaherty: "4% is higher than the 2.5% we can raise from local taxes, therefore other programs and services have to be cut in order to balance the budget."
Here is where Flaherty demonstrates some very, very large holes in his analysis of the contract costs.

  • First, not all teachers earn step increases. As we have seen, after 12 years, teachers no longer receive them. After 14 years of working in Westfield's schools, they are eligible for a longevity benefit, though the money provided by the longevity benefit is generally much smaller than a step increase and only increases every 5 years or so. It's also important to note that the longevity benefit does not apply to the years a teacher has worked in another school system. That means that a teacher who comes to work in Westfield after teaching for 13 years in Springfield will receive neither a step increase nor a longevity benefit for 14 years! According to the WEA, there are over one hundred teachers in Westfield who will not receive a step increase or the longevity benefit this year. Because so many teachers are receiving little or no raises, it's evident that teacher salary increases must be, on average, far below the 4% figure Flaherty claims.
  • Second, we don't have to keep total teacher compensation from increasing less than 2.5% (the maximum percentage increase you are allowed to make to the property tax base by law) to prevent total teacher compensation from eating into programs. Why? Because teacher salaries are not 100% of the budget and property taxes are not 100% of the revenue. There are many more moving parts to our budget than teacher salaries and property taxes. One year we might get additional chapter 70 money from the state or receive money from the federal government like we did this year. We might also see cost savings from school closings or layoffs. Because property taxes and teacher salaries are just two variables in a very large, complicated equation, it makes no sense to limit the total amount to to 2.5% from the previous year. It would be great if things were that simple, but they aren't.
  • But by far the largest mistake Flaherty makes is that he is looking only at individual teacher compensation and not total teacher compensation. He is missing the forest by watching the trees. Because when you step back and look at the total teacher compensation over a long enough period of time, you realize that step increases and track increases cost the city $0 extra. That's right $0. How can that be possible? Aren't we giving lots of teachers pay raises? How can our costs be $0?

    The answer is actually pretty simple once you stop to consider that more experienced teachers with more credentials are constantly retiring and getting replaced with newer teachers with fewer credentials.

    Visualize a conveyor belt with 570 boxes on it. Each box represents a teacher working in Westfield's schools. As the boxes travel down the conveyor belt, they get filled with more and more stuff (money). As they get filled with more stuff, they weigh more and more. The boxes at the end of the conveyor belt will weigh considerably more than the boxes at the beginning. But as the conveyor belt moves, a heavy box falling off the end gets replaced with a much lighter box at the beginning. While it's true that many of the other boxes that don't fall off pick up a little weight as they go, the net gain to the combined weight of the boxes is zero. Now, some years you might have 10 heavy boxes fall off and get replaced with only two light boxes. Alternatively, you might have 10 new boxes come on one year and have only 2 heavy boxes fall off. This is because your boxes aren't evenly distributed along the conveyor belt, they are clumped. Also, some boxes might fall off unexpectedly from the middle of the conveyor belt because a teacher quits, retires early, or dies. But the important thing to realize is that although the combined weight of the boxes will fluctuate from year to year, over time, the average combined weight of the boxes will stay precisely the same (assuming the student population and teacher to student ratio remains the same).

    So, as long as step increases and track increases remain frozen like they were this year, the total compensation package to teachers in FY 2011 will be almost exactly the same as the total compensation package paid to teachers in FY 2031, FY 2051, FY 2111, and, well, forever.

Though we pointed out this last important fact to Councilor Flaherty last week in our email exchange and while he did seem to agree with our case that the step increases would not cost the city of Westfield any extra money, he now seems to want to ignore it. Two days ago, on September 8th, in an online forum post, he stated he will be bringing up the possibility of placing a proposition 2 1/2 override on the ballot to "pay for raises that exceed 2.5%" at the next City Council meeting. Assuming our analysis above is right (we encourage others to point out what we might be overlooking), Flaherty's proposed override language is nothing more than a continuance of his predilection to tilt at windmills.

Just then they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that rise from that plain. And no sooner did Don Quixote see them that he said to his squire, "Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished. Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. With their spoils we shall begin to be rich for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless."

"What giants?" asked Sancho Panza.

"Those you see over there," replied his master, "with their long arms. Some of them have arms well nigh two leagues in length."

"Take care, sir," cried Sancho. "Those over there are not giants but windmills. Those things that seem to be their arms are sails which, when they are whirled around by the wind, turn the millstone."

—Part 1, Chapter VIII. Of the valourous Don Quixote's success in the dreadful and never before imagined Adventure of the Windmills, with other events worthy of happy record.
 

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