PORTLAND — Two weeks ago, Portland school officials held a press conference to announce a three-year contract agreement with unionized teachers.
Officials applauded the educators for making concessions that would save the city approximately $700,000, including limits on professional development raises and adding five classroom days to the school year at no additional cost.
But the contract also includes a provision that puts the salary of the union’s full-time president, who does not teach, almost entirely on the city payroll.
Kathleen Casasa has been the president of the Portland Education Association for about 20 years.
For the last five years, the high school special education teacher has been on leave from teaching to represent the union on a full-time basis. Eighty percent of her salary was paid for by the teachers she represents.
But that will change in September, when the School Department begins paying 80 percent, or about $68,000, of Casasa’s $85,000 annual salary while she continues to do union business full time.
In light of the concessions made by teachers, Casasa said, the arrangement is a way to control union dues. “The job is to be the (union) president,” she said, “not to somehow service the district.”
Superintendent of Schools James C. Morse Sr. said the School Department agreed to the concession because of what the teachers gave up in the new contract. Some union presidents have their entire salaries paid for by their districts, he said.
“Kathleen has been a strong advocate (for teachers),” Morse said.
Michelle Hudgins, a senior press officer at the National Education Association in Washington, D.C., said it is not uncommon for union presidents in large school districts to take leave from their teaching duties to represent their unions full time.
Hudgins, however, could not determine in a timely manner whether it is common for so-called “full-time release” presidents to be largely compensated by their school districts, rather than their unions.
Mark Gray, executive director of the Maine Education Association, said Casasa is the only full-time release union president working in a public kindergarten through 12th grade school system in the state.
In every other public school district affiliated with the MEA, Gray said the union presidents are volunteers – full-time teachers who may receive stipends of a few hundred dollars for their additional union duties.
Gray said it is also common for release presidents to negotiate cost-sharing agreements with their districts.
But, given the high percentage the Portland schools have taken on, Gray encouraged Portland teachers to keep a close watch on Casasa’s performance to make sure she is representing their interests.
“The president is required to stand for re-election,” Gray said. “If members were to lose faith in the local president’s ability to advocate on their behalf, they could certainly have an opportunity to elect someone else.”
Concern over the new arrangement was not reflected in the union’s overwhelming, 90 percent vote of approval for the contract, he noted. There are between 700 and 750 PEA members.
Portland resident Steven Scharf, a school watchdog and frequent critic of school spending, said the contract provision slipped by him. When he was made aware of it, he said having the School Department pay the person they are negotiating with is “a serious conflict of interest on all sides” and a “highly inappropriate use of taxpayers’ money.”
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to pay her salary if she’s not actually teaching,” Scharf said.
Casasa, however, said the real story of the new contract are the additional classroom days and other salary concessions, which reduced layoffs and allowed more ed techs to be included in the budget.
“We know our kids need more time in front of teachers,” Casasa said. “Fortunately, our teachers were willing to bear down. Hopefully, it will be long remembered.”