The School Budget Passed. Now What?

OK, let me fess up right away: the title of this post is a bit misleading. Frankly, I used it to get your attention. If you thought that I would be writing something about the school district and fiscal responsibility, I apologize. That certainly is a worthwhile topic, and I may write about it someday…but not today. Today, I want to write about the teachers’ contract negotiations. More specifically, about people’s attitudes towards the teachers, and their contract negotiation.

One more disclaimer before I get to the point of this post: I neither have an interest in writing about the merits of the positions taken by the parties to the negotiation, nor about whether or not the teachers are asking for too much (or too little). These issues have been debated in the community for many months now, and I have nothing new to add. However, the fact that the teacher’s contract negotiations have been hotly debated in the community for many months — now that’s interesting. Does anyone debate your salary? Mine? The guy who delivers your mail? The clerk who checked you out at Walmart? The CEO of Exxon-Mobil? No, the only salaries that I can think of that get publicly (and hotly) debated are those of our public school teachers. Why is that?

Well, there is a simple answer — which no doubt has already occurred to you — but like most simple answers, it only appears to address the question, while missing the key point entirely. It’s because we get to vote on the school budget, the vast majority of which goes to the salaries of the people who work in the schools, most of whom are teachers. And, as we know, once the budget is passed, it becomes a tax bill that we have to pay. So, the argument goes, since we pay the teachers’ salaries, we have a right to have a say in how much they make. Sounds simple, right?

No, not really, since there’s an important question that no one is addressing: whose salaries don’t we pay? Whether it’s through taxes (e.g., the guys in the highway department or the clerk in the planning office), or via more direct transactions at Walmart, Amazon.com, or with a local handyman, we all pay each other’s salaries, through the money we spend or the taxes we pay. Where do you think the Schiavonis get the money to pay the workers at the IGA? They get it from you when you shop there, of course. If, next month they have to pay their workers higher wages, then they may have to charge you more for the meat, vegetables and dairy you buy. They have no other secret source of money with which to pay their workers. Neither does any other business. But, when was the last time there was a public debate about the produce manager’s salary? Or the plumber’s? (And, I think he definitely makes too much.) Does anyone write a letter to the editor criticizing the employees of the Variety Store because of a raise they asked for? And what about the CEO of Bridgehampton National Bank? I’ll bet the interest rate on my home equity loan would be lower if he made less.

What about the other (non-school) branches of government? After all, we pay the salaries of everyone in government with our tax dollars. The difference is that we don’t get to vote, even indirectly, on the salaries of the majority of government workers. However, we do get to vote on the school budget, and so we feel we have a right to decide how much teachers should earn. I’m sorry, but I think it is both logically and ethically indefensible to pick one group of employees out of all others and publicly criticize them for wanting the same thing that we all want: to make as much money as we can doing the jobs we’ve chosen to do.

At this point I have to say LOUDLY, that this has nothing to do with whether or not Sag Harbor’s teachers are greedy, selfish, or unreasonable. Maybe they are. Maybe they’re not. In this discussion, that’s beside the point. Perhaps you were greedy, selfish and unreasonable the last time you negotiated with your boss. Shall we discuss that here? No, I didn’t think so.

Basically, what I’m saying folks, is this: get a grip. Teachers, just like the rest of us — including me and you — have the right to ask for what they think they need to live the lives they want to live, without being publicly pilloried for doing so. This is America, after all, where we all have the right to chase success, however we define it, in whatever way we choose.

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