The day of reckoning for Toledo Public Schools can no longer be postponed.
When former Superintendent Eugene Sanders agreed to the retroactive pay memorandum of understanding (MOU) with TPS bargaining units, many probably believed a new levy would be just around the corner. Such a levy would pay employees and provide additional funds to carry on business as usual. But that was back in the “heady” days for TPS when Sanders believed, and convinced many in the community, that he could “walk on water.” Today that liability is almost $17 million and increasing by more than $3 million each year, according to the TPS treasurer.
As we look at the current test results and financial condition of TPS, it is easy to blame the current superintendent and his staff as former Mayor Jack Ford recently did. But remember that Sanders was in charge until July 2006 and that he took 12 members of his staff including the treasurer and chief academic officer with him. Any thinking person would realize the previous superintendent developed the budget and programs that lead to the results this year. I have to wonder if Ford would be talking about heads rolling if Sanders and his “yes men” were still running the district.
It’s hard to fault union leadership for this liability since it is their job to negotiate wages and benefits for their members. It may be hard to blame the past board for their lack of foresight. This spring, former board member Peter Silverman told me at a luncheon meeting that his most disappointing moment with Sanders was when he found out that the MOU was agreed to without board review and approval. Silverman did not know about the agreement before it was signed. How many other board members were in the same situation of knowledge “after the fact?” As a sidebar, Sanders’ signature does not appear on the signed MOU.
How does a change in contractual terms go into force without approval by the board?
To compound matters, the MOU is open-ended and has no termination date. It was never tied to the expiration of the existing collective bargaining agreements. And the entire $17 million-plus is due in full at the time a new levy is passed or it is determined by a mutually agreed upon individual or panel that TPS can pay the amount.
We also believe that this MOU would apply to all employees that have been furloughed and retired since the date of agreement, March 23, 2004. This will only add to TPS’ mortgaged future.
It appears Sanders bought labor peace with an agreement lacking appropriate review and approval at a time when passage of a new levy looked challenging and district union officials were unhappy about failed negotiations in 2002. Shortly after this MOU was signed in March 2004, Sanders began interviewing for positions elsewhere. Did he know what was to come?
As we look back in hindsight on what was agreed upon, it is difficult to imagine what was going on in the minds of Sanders and his staff. The decisions made can rightly be described as lacking foresight, judgment and stewardship.
In the business world, this kind of decision would get you fired.
Despite the past, TPS and union leadership need to negotiate a cap on this liability now. Of course, TPS might pass a new levy, but passage is complicated with renewal levies due in 2008, ’09 and ’10, a surplus at the end of 2007 of $18.7 million and a projected surplus for 2008 of $9.7 million. Any prudent individual recognizes that passage of a new levy to pay for a poor management decision is not likely in Toledo today.
Will TPS union leadership be so shortsighted they would bankrupt their employer or cannibalize their membership for a payment even they should concede was based upon poor business judgment and lacked proper scrutiny and approval?
Responsible employee leadership should understand that getting something is better than holding out and getting nothing. Dennis Duffey of IBEW Local 8 demonstrated leadership, foresight and responsibility when he negotiated an early settlement with The Blade. Other unions decided to hold the line and in the end their members lost wages they will never recoup, suffered enormous hardships and in the end, gained nothing.
It would behoove TPS union leadership to recognize that something today is better than nothing tomorrow. Payment of the entire liability will result in massive employee layoffs in an economic and political atmosphere where new levies are not going to be supported.
Management and labor need to resolve this issue now. Every day this liability grows just makes it more difficult for TPS to secure a stable financial future and direct dollars toward real school reforms.
Steven Flagg, co-president of the Toledo chapter of Parents for Public Schools, has been an education activist for more than 12 years. If you would like learn more about the Toledo Public Schools or education issues, visit www.tpsinfo.com.