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Teacher salaries issue sharpens across region

When Neshaminy High School biology teacher Louise Boyd looks at her paycheck – with yearly pay of $97,652 and fully provided health insurance - she sees the fruits of a long campaign to pay educators what they believe they're worth.

Susan Porreca, left, is part of an anti-Neshaminy teachers taxpayers group. She is with her husband Steve, right. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)
Susan Porreca, left, is part of an anti-Neshaminy teachers taxpayers group. She is with her husband Steve, right. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)Read more

When Neshaminy High School biology teacher Louise Boyd looks at her paycheck – with yearly pay of $97,652 and fully provided health insurance - she sees the fruits of a long campaign to pay educators what they believe they're worth.

"We had to fight, claw, scratch, and beg," said Boyd, president of the Neshaminy Federation of Teachers, "and now we do make a professional salary."

But when Levittown parent Susan Porreca looks at Neshaminy teachers' pay and perks, she sees red. A 47-year-old office manager who was unemployed or underemployed for most of 2009 while her welder husband spent three months out of work, Porreca has joined a local taxpayers' group because she's furious at the union's tough tactics in fighting to keep those gains.

"I've taken a lot of time, read their collective-bargaining agreement - none of it has to do with the education of our kids," said Porreca, whose daughter is a sophomore at Neshaminy High. "It's a gimme, gimme, gimme - all the things they have and things they want to keep. And they don't want to contribute to health care when they're making six-figure salaries. That is unbelievable to me."

In many ways, the sprawling Lower Bucks County district, where a protracted contract dispute has played out in the streets and over the airwaves for more than two years, is the tempest-tossed center of a perfect storm sweeping the region, starting with a war of words in New Jersey and spreading to more than a dozen suburban Pennsylvania districts.

The conflict pits teachers eager to hold on to hard-won gains in pay and benefits against a growing number of taxpayers beaten down by the long economic slowdown who question why so many classroom instructors earn more than $80,000, and in some cases more than $100,000, a year.

Much of the controversy over teachers' unions has focused on New Jersey and the increasingly bitter conflict over pay and proposed givebacks between pull-no-punches Gov. Christie and the New Jersey Education Association.

But there are 13 districts in the suburbs north and west of Philadelphia, and 19 in south Jersey, with unresolved union contracts. Increasingly, the new variation of class warfare is playing out in places like Neshaminy or neighboring Pennsbury in Bucks County, where last year three new board members were elected by promising to all but crush the teachers union.

"In a recession with declining revenue, labor costs are the single biggest expenditure," said Simon Campbell, one of those winning Pennsbury candidates, who is also lobbying for a bill in Harrisburg to ban teacher strikes. "Of course, the union doesn't care about that - they just want the money. The average teacher cares about kids but . . . doesn't have a sense of what their union leadership is doing or the implication of what they're doing."

What teachers make

In the Pennsylvania suburbs, salaries for full-time teachers, on average, range from $52,989 in the Oxford Area School District to $89,513 in Council Rock - a significant improvement from the 1980s, when politicians of all stripes saw an urgent need to lure top students into teaching as a way to keep America competitive.

South Jersey teachers' salaries go from an average of $51,966 in the Swedesboro-Woolwich district to $74,566 in Merchantville.

In 2006, future President Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, "We are going to have to take the teaching profession seriously. This means paying teachers what they are worth. There is no reason why an experienced, highly qualified teacher shouldn't earn $100,000."

Nearly 7 percent of public school teachers in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties earn more than $100,000, and nearly 36 percent make more than $80,000.

That contrasts with Philadelphia, where just two teachers make more than $100,000, and 10 percent earn above $80,000.

In South Jersey, where teacher salaries are generally lower, fewer than 1 percent make more than $100,000 - and two-thirds of them are in the Lenape Regional School District. Fifteen percent in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties earn more than $80,000, according to state data.

"If we're going to attract the best and the brightest to the profession, that's what they're going to get paid," said Jim Testerman, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union. "We're going to have to pay them what similar professions with similar education are paid."

Testerman noted that thousands of teachers in the state earn less than $50,000 annually, especially those starting out in their careers.

The Economic Policy Institute in Washington issued a 2008 report, arguing not only that teacher pay trailed comparable jobs by 15 percent, but that the gap had widened in recent years.

Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania who studies teacher-related issues, argues that U.S. teachers are still paid less than their counterparts in many nations.

"They have double the quit rate that [college] professors have," he noted. "A lot of this is because maybe you can get a better-paying job elsewhere."

At the same time, Ingersoll said, the current "push-back is not entirely irrational or vindictive. People are hurting."

Taxpayers vs. teachers

In Neshaminy, the battle lines are drawn most sharply. The district ranks fourth among those in Pennsylvania for the percentage of teachers earning more than $80,000 a year - 55 percent. Their average salary of $77,165 is 15th highest in the state - greater than the typical family income in many communities in the district, which includes both the working-class, flag-draped Cape Cods of Levittown and newer upscale subdivisions.

The pay figures don't take into account the teachers' health coverage or other fringe benefits; one controversial provision in Neshaminy is that after 10 years, teachers are eligible for fully paid family health coverage until age 65.

Add to that the annual 2 to 3 percent raises for experience, a feature of nearly all teacher contracts that boosts end-of-career salaries and those enviable pensions.

"You almost have class warfare here," said Ritchie Webb, president of the Neshaminy school board, "where teachers are saying, 'We're highly educated and we deserve more than you' - that doesn't fly." Webb said residents were beginning to question whether teachers should earn more than people like his own son, a police officer.

"You can't say a teacher's worth all this money while the citizenry paying it is losing their homes."

Census data released this week show household income in parts of the Neshaminy district dropped during the decade by as much as 19 percent.

Neshaminy teachers have been working without a contract since June 2008. Their union seeks retroactive annual raises of 3 to 4 percent and continuation of fully paid health plans. The district has offered a 1 percent annual raise and asked teachers to pay 15 to 17 percent of health costs.

Talks this fall slowed to a trickle as teachers staged a "work-to-contract" job action, in which they avoided tasks such as providing after-school homework help or planning Halloween parties. Their union is running radio ads seeking support.

As the impasse has dragged on, more parents and other taxpayers have turned to activism. Gail Thibodeau is one of two Neshaminy mothers who started an online petition to support the district's hard-line stance, stating: "Fortunately, we are employed but we are definitely opposed to providing free health care to our teachers, not in these economic times."

Matt Pileggi, a 34-year-old father of four in Levittown, said he started the taxpayers' website in the spring after the district proposed cuts in school programs to balance the budget. He would rather see the district reduce payroll. "This is about more than we think everybody is worth," said Pileggi, who has seen his own income as a Web developer drop and his insurance costs rise.

The acrimony comes even as Neshaminy approved a budget in June with no tax increase, in part the result of a no-raises pact with a school support staff union.

The average school-tax bill in Neshaminy is about in the middle for Bucks County - roughly $4,200. Raising school taxes is difficult under the 2006 state law known as Act I, which limits rate hikes, creating a revenue squeeze in some districts - especially with home values shrinking.

Even some of the most affluent suburbs have increasing discord. Radnor teachers have been working without a contract since September, a month before they overwhelmingly voted down a contract with annual raises that would stretch out the number of years teachers must work to reach the top of their salary scale. Meanwhile, the township police union has agreed to a salary freeze.

Teachers initially decided not to hold informal coffee sessions with parents as they have done before. "We were conscious of the perception - who wants to hear from someone wanting more money?" said Alan Metzger, a social studies teacher and spokesman for the union. "There hasn't been a lot of love thrown our way."

N.J. governor talks tough

Christie has played a large role in the escalating national debate over teachers' pay and the political clout of their unions.

It's not just what he's asked for - that teachers agree to freeze their pay and contribute 1.5 percent of their salaries toward health coverage - but the bombastic way he's done so.

In one popular YouTube video, Christie barks at a teacher complaining of low pay: "Well, then, you don't have to do it."

Also feeding the controversy this fall was the popular documentary film Waiting for Superman. It also cast teachers unions in a harsh light, a depiction many educators have bitterly contested.

Despite the rancor, some districts have found common ground. Two years ago in the cash-strapped Quakertown Community School District, the teachers union and district officials agreed on $700,000 in givebacks that minimized layoffs and saved popular programs.

"We said we really have to do something," said Chris Roth, the union president, after weighing possible cuts in transportation and sports. "The money just didn't come in - so you can't pay it out."

In other districts without contracts, union officials say teachers are bearing the brunt of the criticism.

"The only place where the community can control the purse strings at the local level is with teachers," said Jackie Anderson, teachers union president in Hatboro-Horsham, where there's been an impasse over pay and health insurance since June 2009. "There's very little you can do about state spending, very little you can do about federal spending."

Angry taxpayers like Neshaminy's Porreca, who eliminated a home phone and other extras after she and her husband took pay cuts this year, seized that opportunity. "I don't begrudge people with an advanced degree earning more money," she said. "They went to school, took time, got the education. . . . But they already have the Rolls-Royce of health-care plans, and they contribute nothing toward the cost of that."

Boyd, the union leader in Neshaminy, said teachers merely wanted to maintain their standard of living, and she rejected the notion of giving back to help the community. "We're not doing that," she said. "I don't want to make less. I don't want to ask you to make less this year than last year."

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