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Stimulus may avert showdown with S.P. teachers

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Stimulus may avert showdown with S.P. teachers

SOUTH PORTLAND — The federal stimulus package signed into law Tuesday by President Barack Obama may head off a battle between the superintendent of schools and the teachers union.
The $787 billion package is expected to restore $27 million cut this year from eduction budgets throughout the state, Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said on Wednesday. However, it's unclear whether that level of funding can be restored in 2010 and 2011 school budgets.
"We are still reviewing the law to fully understand how the money can be assigned," Connerty-Marin said.
Superintendent Suzanne Godin said she plans to meet with the state education commissioner on Friday and again on Tuesday to discuss spending restrictions on the federal stimulus.
Meanwhile, Godin has asked the leaders of all four school employee unions to come to the negotiating table in an effort to deal with what could still be a significant decrease in state education aid next year.
Godin plans to meet next week with negotiators from the South Portland Teacher's Association, the union representing more than 300 teachers, to discuss ways to meet what could be a $875,000 cut in state education aid in the 2010 budget.
One measure likely to be discussed is a salary freeze. Teacher salaries are scheduled to increase 3.5 percent next year, the last – and largest – in a three-year contract. But  union leaders have already declared the measure a "non-starter," according to SPTA President Tom Majors.
Majors said the union's Representative Assembly, which issues recommendations to the entire union, is "adamantly opposed" to a salary freeze. Members are wary, he said, of giving up scheduled raises in the last year of their contract, because it was the payoff year. The group received 2.5 percent and 3 percent raises in the first two contract years.
"To discuss a salary freeze at this point would be premature," Majors said.
Mark Gray, executive director of the Maine Educators Association – the umbrella group for school unions, said he strongly advised union leaders throughout the state to move slowly, if at all, on measures like salary freezes and furlough days.
Gray said Wednesday there are two major reasons for that position: the stimulus bill, and previous experiences with state budget shortfalls in 1991 and 1993, when teachers agreed to pay freezes and furlough days to stem layoffs, but jobs were lost anyway.
"Let's wait until we have the whole picture before we agree to salary freezes and furlough days," said Gray, who attended a meeting of the state's education commission on Wednesday.
The School Department this week could not provide an estimate of how much could be saved through a teacher salary freeze, because employees were preparing a proposed 2010 budget. But an examination of the current budget showed South Portland teachers are making nearly $11 million this year. If that number is frozen, the district would save an estimated $387,000, reducing the likelihood of teacher layoffs.
Godin called that figure a "very rough" estimate, since it does not take into account specific steps in the teacher salary scale and positions that may have changed due to new teachers and resignations.
"That would take a huge amount of time to calculate," said Godin, who must present her budget to the School Board next week.
Majors said the estimated savings is not incentive enough to agree to a pay freeze, since layoffs may still be needed to meet the projected revenue
shortfall. Union members are also concerned about the effect a salary freeze would have on teachers who plan to retire, since their pension is typically based on their highest-paid year.
Godin said School Department staff have already agreed to a pay freeze, which Business Manager Polly Ward estimated will save the district $11,600 in next year's budget. However, Ward said the district is budgeting an 8 percent increase in health-insurance costs, too, but she could not provide a dollar amount for that estimate.
Although she has already had a preliminary meeting with the SPTA leaders, Godin said she has not yet met with leaders of the other three unions, including the Administrators Association. That union, representing 14 principals, assistant principals and the athletic director, recently signed a three-year contract entitling them to a 2 percent raise next year, expected to cost the district about $20,000.
Contracts with the teacher's union, service personnel and support staff expire on June 30, 2010.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net.