Occasionally this spring, WBUR’s “Towns In Trouble” series is examining how the state budget crisis is reverberating in two Massachusetts communities: Hull and Gardner. David Boeri revisits Gardner as budget cuts push the city toward laying off teachers and other school staff.
GARDNER, Mass. — Three big numbers account for the layoffs facing the schools here. Only one of them is of Gardner's doing.
The first, and biggest, is $800,000. That's how much the state is probably going to cut in aid to Gardner schools. Then comes the staggering $600,000 increase in health insurance next year. On top of that is the $365,000 in salary increases the school committee has given to teachers and other unionized employees.
One, two, three — the school system faces a crisis.
"We've cut so much in this year's (budget) and past years' on the expense side that there's literally nothing left to cut," says Gardner Superintendent Carol Daring. She says the only thing left to cut is 10 percent of the employees, as she explained at a recent school committee meeting.
"It's gotten to the point where we're talking about what cuts can we make and still be able to survive and still be able to give our students the education they deserve," Daring says.
However hard the superintendent and the school committee scan the hefty budget books looking for small things to cut, like the copying machine budget, they can't find enough spare change to save jobs. But one way to soften the blow of layoffs would be to ask the teachers union to give up its scheduled pay raise.
"We need their help this time around and the help of the other unions," Daring says. "This time we need them to take a zero."
Three times now, the school committee has asked the superintendent to ask the teachers union — as well as the unions for clerical workers and paraprofessionals — to forgo pay increases. The teachers union has been as unresponsive as its longtime local president, Howard Klash, was when I asked to talk with him after a school committee meeting:
"Towns In Trouble" Series:
- Gardner: Hampered Community Kicks On, Still Makes Champions
- Gardner: In ‘Chair City,’ Budget Cuts Amputate Municipal Services
- Hull: Debrief: Hull Parents, Students Suffer Override Defeat
- Hull: ‘It Has To Pass:’ Two Hull Families Brace For Override Vote
- Hull: Parents Find The Downside Of A ‘Get Out The Vote’ Campaign
- Hull: Budget Cuts Nearly Draw Curtain On A High School Musical
Has the superintendent spoken to you a third time? "I have no comment as of yet," Klash says. Will you have a comment? "Maybe," he adds.
Klash may be the softball coach, but, according to Mayor Mark Hawke, he's played hardball while the city-side unions have made sacrifices because of Gardner's troubles.
"All seven unions took zero, zero, zero for raises," Hawke says. Those unions include police, fire and the Department of Public Works. "Conversely, the schools gave out raises."
Mayor Hawke sits on the school committee but he can only vote in the case of a tie, so he couldn't stop the teacher raises.
"That's where the power really lies," Hawke says. "Fire and police unions are strong, but locally, I know the guys, I can talk with them, we can work things out. The schools, however, the teachers union is a little too powerful, always gets what it wants. And that's killing the school system."
School committee member Christine Wilson, who has children in first and second grade, jokes about being called the "budget bulldog" of the group. Her fear of elementary classroom teachers being laid off may explain her dogged search for any budget savings that might add a job.
"I love the school system here," she says. "They have wonderful school teachers. They are just great."
In 2008, Wilson voted to give pay raises to the teachers. In retrospect, she says it was "too high."
"If we knew then what we know now, would I have voted for it?" she asks herself. "No. I wouldn't have voted for it."
"The schools, however, the teachers union is a little too powerful, always gets what it wants. And that’s killing the school system.”-- Gardner Mayor Mark Hawke
The collective bargaining agreement gave teachers an increase of 1 percent the first year, 2 percent in the second, and 3 percent this year. If they forgo this year's increase, as many as 12 staff members could get their jobs back.
The teacher layoffs will proceed by seniority, so the youngest and newest teachers will go first in what critics have long called "the teachers union penchant to eat their young."
At a recent public meeting, school committee member Carol Bailey pointed out that Gardner has consistently provided the bare minimum funding required by the state, paying only about 25 percent of the school budget while the state picks up the remaining 75 percent of the cost.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we're going to have to take care of this ourselves," Bailey says. "We're going to have to go to our residents and request an override to fund this."
In a city — hard-hit by economic decline — that's never passed a Proposition 2 1/2 override, what are the chances of winning a vote when the teachers union isn't going to give up any of its salary increase or make any concessions, either? I asked union President Klash.
"I have no comments," Klash says, twice.
I offer to give him my card and tell him I'll be asking him again.
"And you probably may get the same answer: No comment," he says.
This program aired on May 19, 2010.