Teacher Unions and the New math: 20% is 10%

Unbeknownst to me the CPI (Consumer Price Index) went up by over 20% the last 3 years. Although I checked the Bureau of Labor Statistics and they said 10% I read an ad in the Daily Herald on Sunday, November 4th from the teacher union at District 211 that said they were going on strike soon if they didn’t get big raises.

In fact the ad says the teachers had agreed previously to limit increases to less than the CPI for the last 3 years and that’s why the strike was justified.

So just to make sure I understood what the teacher union meant I decided to check what actually happened to District 211 teacher salaries over the 3 year period 2003-2006. What I found out was that the 554 teachers who worked at Dist. 211 for that 3 year period averaged 19.8% salary increases.

Therefore it follows that the CPI must have been over 20% because the union’s ad in the Herald said they were working for increases less than the CPI. Therefore either the Bureau of Labor Statistics or the teachers union is wrong. Call me a cynic, but I believe the BLS.

And by the way, 149 of those 554 teachers had increases in excess of $20,000, which doesn’t sound like a sacrifice to me. I wonder – how many readers of this article had their salaries increase by $20,000 over the last 3 years?

The other teacher salary issue is Average Salary. That particular calculation is virtually meaningless when it comes to the parallel universe that is the Illinois Public School system. As an example I again refer to District 211. In 2006 the average teacher salary at 211 was $82,254 and in 2002 $85,438.

Now do you really think that the teachers took a salary cut between 2002 and 2006? Of course not. The Average Salary figure is used by the unions because it is unrepresentative of the real increases being received by the teachers every year. The Teacher Retirement System (TRS), which tracks all salaries, states that the average year over year is 6.5%, which according to my 3-year spreadsheet is just about right.

The reason the Average Salary is unrepresentative is because when $150,000/yr teachers retire they are replaced by younger teachers making perhaps $50,000/yr. In District 211’s case there were 3 teachers in 2006 that made more than $150,000: a Drivers Ed teacher, a Phys Ed teacher and an Auto repair teacher. So even though that $50,000 teacher had a raise of 6.5% the average actually goes down because of the $100,000 decrease.

You will notice that neither the taxpayers nor the parents nor the students get any extra benefit from paying a $150,000 Drivers Ed teacher rather than a $50,000 one. The only people who benefit from this scheme are the teachers.

What possible benefit accrues to the community when taxes are used to pay $150,000 for a service that should cost 1/3 of that amount? Why don’t we pay $50,000 for drivers ed and use the other $100,000 for other public purposes such as health care for poor kids?

Keep in mind, in Dist 211, 319 out of 891 full-time employees made more than $100,000 and when they retire and are replaced by less expensive, but just as adequate, teachers it drives down the average.

And of course you are not done paying after they retire. Teachers total pension payments during their retirement adds up to more than twice what they made when they taught. So you pay them when they work then you pay them even more for not working. In the case of the three $150,000 teachers above, total pension payout over their expected lifetimes, for all three combined, will exceed $12 million, not including health benefits which currently average about $4,000/yr.

Again, wouldn’t the community as a whole be better served if we paid out say $5 million in pensions to these three teachers and used the other $7 million for homeless shelters and food pantries?

To paraphrase the home-schooled Abe Lincoln, the Illinois Public schools are – of the teachers, by the teachers and for the teachers. You have nothing to say about it. You write your check for the taxes and the union writes their check to the politicians. That’s how it works in Illinois.

Bill Zettler is a free-lance writer and consultant specializing in public sector compensation.