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Salary freezes asked of teachers

JOHNSON NEWSPAPERS
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Some cash-strapped school districts in St. Lawrence County have asked teachers and other employees to feel the pinch in their own paychecks by accepting a salary freeze next school year.


School officials say freezing wages would allow them to save some of the jobs and programs they've been forced to place on the chopping block in their 2011-12 budgets.


In combination with that measure, a growing number of districts are trying to persuade their employees to start contributing toward their own health insurance premiums.


St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services Superintendent Thomas R. Burns said it's up to individual school districts to determine what concessions they'll seek from employees.


"Obviously, they've had discussions about it," Mr. Burns said. "They're having those discussions quietly and behind closed doors."


Potsdam Superintendent Patrick H. Brady said he has asked the district's three bargaining units to accept a wage freeze next school year: teachers, support staff and administration.


Earlier this month, however, the district's Civil Service Employees Association rejected the salary freeze. That union represents secretaries, clerical staff, cafeteria workers, teacher assistants, custodial workers and other support staff.


Potsdam's teachers and administrators are considering the freeze as part of ongoing negotiations for new contracts.


"It is difficult to say what the other groups will do," Mr. Brady said. "We feel we're in a position to ask for a salary freeze considering the situation we're facing, a 10.3 percent loss in state aid and possibly 18 job cuts."


A districtwide salary freeze would save Potsdam an estimated $230,000, which would allow the district to preserve three or four jobs, he said. Depending on which union they are in, Potsdam school employees chip in 2 percent to 10 percent toward health insurance premiums, with teachers paying 3 percent.


Mr. Burns said taking a pay freeze, even just for one year, can have a substantial impact on how much retirement compensation a teacher receives at the end of his or her career.


At Edwards-Knox Central School, Russell, teachers and other unionized employees have until March 28 to decide whether to take a pay freeze that would save the district an estimated $172,000 next school year, Superintendent Suzanne L. Kelly said.


"Both those unions will be meeting and taking a vote," Ms. Kelly said. "I met with all staff and asked them to consider a pay freeze."


If the teachers agree, she said, the district's 10 nonunionized employees, including administrators, likewise will take a pay freeze.


To offset revenue shortfalls, the district may cut 5.5 teaching jobs, including four through retirements. Cuts to athletics, music and other extracurricular areas also are being considered.


A districtwide pay freeze would help lessen the blow to staff and program cuts, Ms. Kelly said.


"It would save a combination of positions and programs. It would help us considerably," she said.


Employees at Edwards-Knox contribute 10 percent toward their health insurance premiums.


Canton Superintendent William A. Gregory said all six of the district's bargaining units have been asked to accept a salary freeze next year, but he doesn't anticipate a decision until after the state adopts its new budget. The district is considering eliminating 20 teaching jobs to help close a projected $3.9 million budget shortfall.


"We are in the process of exploring other alternatives that would generate as much revenue as a freeze," Mr. Gregory said in an email.


Bernardino T. Fiacco, president of the Canton Teachers Association, said teachers are considering the request as part of negotiations for their new contract. The union's one-year contract expires June 30.


"Everything is on the table. Everything is being discussed," Mr. Fiacco said.


Several of the 18 public school districts in the St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES pay the full cost of health insurance premiums for their employees, an expense that continues to rise significantly each year. Some districts have switched to less expensive plans.


Starting July 1, teachers at Colton-Pierrepont Central School will begin paying 10 percent toward their health insurance, marking the first time they've contributed. The move is expected to save the district $100,000 next school year, with savings extending into the future.


In Ogdensburg, teachers this year agreed to a new contract that includes shifting to a different insurance option that's estimated to save the district more than $600,000. In addition, teachers approved a new three-year contract that requires a premium contribution of 3 percent, followed by 4 percent and 5 percent.


"Without this agreement, the cuts in Ogdensburg would have been significantly more severe than currently proposed," Superintendent Timothy M. Vernsey said.

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