Friday, July 21, 2006

State Budget - Bergen Record - 4a of 6 - OpEd: Linking pay to property taxes

Published in the Bergen Record, Wednesday, July 19, 2006

OpEd, Companion to 4 of 6
Linking cop, teacher pay to property taxes


IT HAD TO BE SAID, but no one was prepared to say it. Now The Record has done it, in a readable and engrossing series that documents what many of us just assumed to be true, that the pay and benefits of cops and teachers are the biggest factors in New Jersey's highest-in-the-nation residential property taxes.

Any attempt to restrain the growth in those taxes will have to include more effective local spending limits, but current beneficiaries of the system will resist strongly and effectively. Trying to get police officers and teachers to give back some of their current pay and benefits is, realistically, a strategy unlikely to succeed.

What might be achieved, with bipartisan effort, is less costly contracts with new employees. A good case can be made for this, as a matter of fairness to taxpayers, some of whom will otherwise be literally taxed out of their homes. It will require courage and strength of conviction, though, and those qualities are always in short supply.

The newspaper series documents the fight mounted by Emerson and Westwood police against a proposal, supported by elected officials in the two boroughs and the county government, to merge the two forces with the county police.

Advocates for the change made a good case that it would save significant money by reducing force levels without risk to public safety. The reduction would occur through attrition. Nobody would be laid off. The cops, defending current staff levels, defeated the plan, in part through a show of determination at a Westwood borough council meeting and a threatened recall of the mayor of Emerson.

The cops did not talk about a strike, however. Ever since Calvin Coolidge was governor of Massachusetts, that has been unthinkable, beyond the pale. Coolidge, dealing with a strike by the Boston police, wrote in 1919 to Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor, "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time."

Ridgewood teachers strike

In New Jersey, the state constitution distinguishes between people in private employment, who are guaranteed the right to strike, and public employees, who are assured only the right to present grievances and request solutions. So four years ago, when the contract of the Ridgewood teachers was up for renewal, they did everything short of strike right up to the last minute.

They refused to correct tests after school hours. They picketed Board of Education meetings. Garbed in bright red shirts with the union logo, scores of them massed in an end zone at a high-school football game, distracting the players. They wore the shirts to classes on Fridays. They picketed the home of a board member.

Benefits at issue

At issue were not so much pay levels as benefits. The board wanted to enroll new employees in a less expensive health-insurance program. Days before the deadline for action, the teachers authorized a strike by "consensus," not a recorded show of hands. Parents dreading closure of the schools had been pressing for an agreement, no matter the terms. The board finally caved, agreeing not to change health benefits. The teachers would get 4.4 percent raises every year for three years.

As of the 2005 school year, Ridgewood employed 424 teachers, the second-highest number in Bergen County, after Hackensack's staff. The average Ridgewood classroom teacher's salary was $70,246. That works out to $30 million for teacher salaries. For an experienced teacher with a master's degree plus 30 college credits, the pay was $90,000. No matter what the superintendent and other top administrators were paid, it was peanuts by comparison with the teacher totals.

So, too, with the March report of the state Commission of Investigation about subterfuges by districts to raise superintendents' pay and benefits without full disclosure to the public. The poster case for compensation excess was John Grieco, the late superintendent who served simultaneously as leader of three school districts: Bergen County Special Services; Bergen County Technical Schools, with its magnet academic subsidiary, and Englewood and its magnet, Academies@Englewood.

Those add up to at least three full-time jobs, and he filled all of them well. He was a practical visionary, able to see the education potential in a project and to politically leverage the plight of a 97-percent minority high school in Englewood into millions of dollars in special aid from Trenton. He turned the county magnet school into a New Jersey version of the Bronx High School of Science and created from scratch an integrated, academically successful magnet school in Englewood that drew good students from 36 other towns.

So what did he do that was so bad? His compensation from the three districts, as reported to Trenton, was $210,000, but it was actually $371,000, including an annuity, compensation for unused leave, an insurance policy, and contributions to his state pension account. Well, his employers should have been more forthcoming, and thanks to the Commission of Investigation report, they probably will be, henceforward.

However, the expenditures masked by these deceptions did not constitute a significant portion of his districts' budgets. At Special Services, he supervised 310 teachers, at Bergen Tech 256, at Englewood 274, with total salaries of $51.4 million.

Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, capitalizing on the report, is using it as a centerpiece of his special summer session on property tax reform. But school-superintendent pay is not the crux of the problem. As with police officers, it is the pay and benefits that the rank-and-file, the teachers, are getting. Those figures, as documented by The Record's series, are high and rising inexorably.

James Ahearn is former managing editor of The Record. Send comments about this column to

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Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.