By Victor Skinner
BROWNSVILLE, Pa. – Brownsville Area School Board director Nena Kaminsky recently made headlines when she convinced her colleagues to reject a proposed teachers union contact, and told the union why.
The message was clear: taxpayers aren’t getting their money’s worth, and the district isn’t prepared to significantly increase teacher compensation until student performance improves.
Kaminsky’s comments sparked teacher protests at two local elementary schools where union employees wore t-shirts demanding “respect.” The local newspaper covered the events, and duly reported union leaders’ excuses for poor academic outcomes.
Members of the local teachers union, the Brownsville Education Association, had already ratified the contract before it went to the school board. After Kaminsky read the document shortly before the board meeting, she called in her colleagues to point out how rotten of a deal it was.
She urged them not to vote for it.
“We have a few board members who go with the flow. My purpose that night was to embarrass the board members to not vote for the contract,” Kaminsky told EAGnews.org. “The biggest thing is we never got the contract until so late and they tried to sneak it past us.”
The board eventually voted 7-0 reject the terms of the teachers contract, with two board members abstaining. Kaminsky explained her reasoning – that high teacher pay isn’t producing results for students. Other board members said the district probably couldn’t afford the pay increases contained in the contract.
“Personally, I don’t think we could take another (increase),” school board director Stella Broadwater said at the meeting, according to the Herald Standard.
Pennsylvania State Education Association representative Matt Edgell attended the meeting, called Kaminsky “despicable,” and said there’s a chance teachers could strike.
“Some of the comments made by some of those board members were downright embarrassing and hurtful to the teachers,” he told the newspaper.
Sometimes the truth hurts.
What happened to the concessions?
The Brownsville Education Association and school district haven’t negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement in several years, and teachers are currently working under the terms of an expired contract.
As with most public school districts, Brownsville struggles to balance its budget due to rising labor costs. That reality forced district officials to end some student art and sports programs in recent years.
The union didn’t press for negotiations when the old contract expired because “they knew we were in dire straits, so they didn’t say anything. But when they saw us bringing back programs they wanted to negotiate again,” said Kaminsky, who is serving her third and final term as a board member.
Meanwhile, area residents approved a 3 mill tax increase last year and the district is getting back on its feet. The school managed to build a small fund reserve, Kaminsky said, and the school board set goals for negotiations with the BEA.
Board members agreed to press for a salary freeze for teachers, teacher contributions toward health insurance coverage (they currently pay nothing), and the elimination of automatic annual “step” raises and hefty retirement bonuses.
Negotiations began last fall and Kaminsky worked as lead negotiator for the district for the first four months, she said. But it quickly became obvious the union wasn’t interested in concessions, and the district’s superintendent wasn’t prepared to demand them.
“In the beginning, they didn’t want to talk about money. We had negotiations for six hours because teachers wanted to wear tennis shoes to school,” Kaminsky said. When talks finally turned to compensation, the union and district were miles apart.
“Their demands were just outrageous … very unaffordable,” Kaminsky said. “We live in a very poor area, and most of our area is elderly and on fixed salary and we’re taxing them out of their homes.”
Kaminsky, a mother of former students and grandmother of current students in the district, said she urged the superintendent to take a hard line with the union in negotiations, but he refused.
“Our superintendent kept saying we can’t get all of the cuts we wanted,” Kaminsky said. “He would tell us we can’t do this, or we can’t do that.
“He kind of eased me out as negotiator, and got someone in he could control,” she said. “When the teachers ratified the contract, the board had never seen it.”
When board members actually had an opportunity to read over the document, they were severely disappointed, Kaminsky said.
‘The only ones who lose out are the students’
The proposed agreement contained significant raises for Brownsville teachers, with few of the board’s desired concessions offered in return.
“Concessions” from the BEA included requiring teachers to pay for the first 16 credits of their continuing education, and to make a miniscule contribution of about $25 per month toward their health insurance costs.
“When I got it, I read through it with a fine-toothed comb and nothing had changed. You had some teachers who were going to get a $20,000 raise, some teachers getting $10,000 raises, to make up for the two years they’ve been without a contract,” Kaminsky said. “It was the upper teachers and the lower teachers who would get the most.”
“We do have a fund balance at this point, a small one, and we’re keeping afloat, but this contract would cost us millions of dollars for teacher raises and next year we would probably be in a deficit again,” she said.
Kaminsky believes the raises aren’t necessarily justified given a lack of accountability for employees in the district.
“The accountability stinks. We have the shortest day in the state, only about 5 ¼ hours of teaching out of the day,” she said. “If you’ve ever heard the expression ‘the inmates run the asylum,’ that’s Brownsville.”
The district pays a day’s salary for every teacher to attend in-service to improve their instructional techniques. But teachers are not contractually obligated to show up, and most of them don’t, Kaminsky said.
The lack of participation is reflected in the district’s poor student performance, she said.
“We pay for the in-service day teachers do not have to attend and most of them don’t, which I think is pretty crazy. Why pay them if they don’t show up?” Kaminsky said. “The only ones who lose out are the students.”
“We would have avoided all this if that contract would have come to us first,” Kaminsky said.
The board could have rejected the proposed agreement without all of the public embarrassment, she said, but the message would have been the same.
“You’re the highest paid teachers in the county and we’re in the lowest 10 percent in student test scores in Pennsylvania. Something is wrong with that,” Kaminsky explained. “These teachers have a cake contract. Everybody else has to do without and I think they should too.
“I think that really sent a message to teachers.”
As the district heads back to negotiations to craft a more reasonable pact, Kaminsky said the superintendent now has explicit instructions.
“We told him in no uncertain terms this is unacceptable,” Kaminsky said. “They have had a cake contract for too long and we’re not getting any results. It’s put up or shut up. It’s that simple.”
That’s a very candid assessment from a long-time school board member who no longer has anything to gain from sugarcoating the truth.
“When you’re running again you have to worry about votes, but I’m not, so I don’t care about that anymore,” she said.