It’s no secret that public schools throughout Idaho and the rest of the nation are desperate for cash. Stagnant state revenues and rising costs are forcing our schools to do more with less money every academic year.
Labor costs are a major financial drag on public schools. A typical district spends anywhere between 70 and 80 percent of its total budget on labor every year, the vast majority being expensive union labor. That makes significant cost-cutting almost impossible without trimming labor expenses.
As we’ve discovered over the past few years, many of those labor costs are the result of various provisions written into teachers’ collective bargaining master agreements. Items like automatic, annual “step” salary increases, generous health and pension benefits, high numbers of paid sick and personal days, generous reimbursement for unused sick and personal days, and full pay and benefits for teachers who spend their time doing union business suck millions of dollars from public school treasuries every year.
In recent years many school boards have asked union leaders for contract concessions to help maintain student services, and have frequently been rejected. But the situation can be even more troublesome.
These provisions keep public schools chained to outlandish labor costs for an indefinite period of time, even though the agreement to cover those costs has expired.
Evergreen provisions prevent school boards from making unilateral spending cuts that may be necessary to balance budgets, retain teaching positions or maintain student programs. They also serve as a deterrent to good-faith negotiations by union representatives.
In the current economic environment, union leaders realize that new master agreements will probably not incorporate their entire wish list, and could very well stipulate lower salaries and decreased benefits. Since the evergreen clause allows their members to live off the fat of the old contracts indefinitely, union leaders have very little incentive to bargain in good faith.
The longer union leaders can drag negotiations out, the better the chance that more of their demands will be met in the final agreement.
Legislation is expected to be introduced very soon that would prohibit evergreen provisions in Idaho school/union master agreements. Passage of such legislation would give school officials much more flexibility to change spending priorities when master agreements expire, and would give them more leverage at the bargaining table when negotiating new agreements.
Our staff recently reviewed teachers’ union master agreements from five Idaho school districts, to determine the type of costs those districts are currently saddled with, and could be stuck with indefinitely, due to evergreen provisions.