By Steve Gunn
MUSKEGON, Mich. – The Los Angeles Unified School District spent $334 million on health insurance for employees who belonged to the teachers union in 2010-11.
The district also spent $84 million on health coverage for union retirees.
How much did the employees kick in? Absolutely nothing.
Why? Because the district’s collective bargaining agreement with the United Teachers of Los Angeles said they didn’t have to.
Huge labor costs, stipulated by teachers union contracts in school districts across the nation, suck millions of dollars from public school budgets every year. And those costs do not go away in troubled economic times.
More often than not, local unions will insist on receiving all the perks written into their contracts, even if that means cancellation of student programs and other painful budget cuts.
Last year EAGnews.org decided to illustrate this problem by investigating contractual labor costs in some of the nation’s largest school districts. The result was our nine-part report, “Sucking the Life Out of America’s Public Schools – The Expense of Teacher Union Contracts.”
This week we wrap up the project by issuing reports on labor costs in the San Francisco school district (today) and the Denver school district (Thursday).
We’ve previously released similar reports for the Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Detroit, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Cleveland and Miami school districts. All of the reports will be posted and accessible by the end of the week on EAGnews.org.
We recently thumbed back through the reports, just to find some of the more mind-boggling or amusing expenses we discovered along the way. We thought we’d share a few today, just to remind everyone that collective bargaining is and always has been a major financial headache for public schools.
The labor expenses pile up
The Los Angeles district, mentioned above, was plagued with all sorts of extra union costs it could barely afford in 2010-11. Besides insurance, the district was forced to pay $47 million in automatic, annual step raises for teachers, regardless of their performance in the classroom.
The Cleveland school district was hit particularly hard, paying a whopping $84 million toward teacher retirement pensions in 2010-11 with no contribution from union employees. The district also spent $43.9 million on health insurance for teachers union members, who only kicked in a combined $2.4 million toward the cost.
The Cleveland district also paid out $4 million to teachers for unused sick days and nearly $800,000 to teachers for “oversized classroom payments.” The district’s liberal policy of 18 paid sick and personal days led to an average absentee rate of 13 days per teacher. That’s quite a few, considering the school year only has about 180 days.
Philadelphia also had some eye-opening expenses, including a foolish 3 percent raise for teachers that cost the district $14.4 million; a $165 million tab for health insurance with employees only contributing $270,550; $15.3 million in severance pay for teachers who left for any reason; and $66 million toward the employee health and welfare fund.
Our favorite from Philadelphia was the $2.6 million spent on a “legal services fund” for union employees. The money can be used for any personal legal fees they might incur. Just how many teacher divorces have Philadelphia taxpayers financed over the years?
Detroit Public Schools forked out $15.6 million for automatic, annual step raises, plus another $435,000 for “super step” raises; $47.1 million for union employee insurance (employees contributed only $6.3 million); $12.5 million for reimbursement for unused sick days; and $376,082 to teachers for oversized classroom payments.
The costs weren’t quite so crazy in Minneapolis, but a few were pretty weird. The district paid out $89,000 in bonuses for teachers for simply making the cut and achieving tenure status. Please.
The Milwaukee contract was full of expensive goodies for union members. It included a 3 percent raise that cost the cash-strapped district $10.4 million; free health insurance for teachers at a cost of $125 million to the district; free pensions for teachers at a cost of $56 million to the district; and $1.3 million for teachers who occasionally covered for absent colleagues.
And get this - Milwaukee schools spent $2 million for teachers to perform lunchroom supervision and $90,000 for teachers to help with school bus loading and unloading supervision.
We learned that the Miami school district is very generous with paid sick days, allowing teachers to take them due to the illness or death of just about anyone they know – “foster children, step parents, nieces, nephews, uncles, aunts, foster parents, mothers-in-law, fathers-in-law and anyone who resides at the same address as the person requesting sick leave.”
No wonder the Miami district paid out $21 million for substitute teachers in 2010-11.
The San Francisco district, the subject of today’s release, paid out an incredible $134 million for staff members to coach sports teams or lead other extracurricular activities. They’re cutting the school calendar and giving teachers unpaid furlough days, yet they spend that kind of money on recreational programs. They are certainly important, but at what cost?
In Denver, the district paid out $23 million for a benefits allowance for teachers, $21 million for automatic, annual salary increases for teachers and more than $330,000 in reimbursement for unused sick days.
Public struggles to get public information
For most districts we submitted about 30 questions, all directly related to specific clauses in their union collective bargaining agreements. We figured school financial personnel would keep close track of these costs so school board members could review them before the next contract was negotiated.
How wrong we were. It took several districts – most notably San Francisco – almost a year to completely respond to our questions. In some districts, like Denver, we had to continue to bother the contact people until we received the specific information we needed.
At one point, a communications specialist in the Denver district accidently forwarded us an email he had sent to a colleague in another department, complaining about our stubborn determination to gain the information we needed.
“He’s hounding me now for these answers … do you have any info I can send?” the employee wrote.
We also learned that the communications specialists we worked with in various school districts have a tough time securing financial information from other departments.
For instance, the Los Angeles school district initially reported that the district paid $382 million for substitute teachers in the 2010-11 school year. That sounded remarkably high, so we double-checked with the nice guy working in the communications office. He tried for several weeks to get a more accurate answer from the appropriate department, but failed before our report was released.
That’s bureaucracy in action.
Some districts have policies in place to keep the public from accessing public information.
Chicago Public Schools, for instance, informed us that we were only allowed to submit seven questions per month. It would have taken forever to gather the amount of information we needed.
Boston Public Schools wanted $2,000 to release its financial information. Being the small-budget outfit we are, we were forced to pass.
That’s precisely what Boston officials were hoping for. While charging a nominal fee to cover the expense of employee research time is certainly reasonable, asking thousands of dollars is nothing more than an attempt to get around public information laws.
Some school districts are like vampires – they are allergic to sunlight (in the form of public scrutiny) and will do anything to avoid it.