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Work Rules Bust Holes in School Budgets

April 07, 2004|Lydia Segal | Lydia Segal, a professor at John Jay College, is the author of "Battling Corruption in America's Public Schools" (2004).

As shrinking revenue forces public schools across the country to slash budgets, superintendents are searching for ways to cut without harming learning. My study of six districts identified a way to free up millions of dollars for classrooms and enhance teaching. How? Change union work rules.

Work rules negotiated by unions carve employment fiefdoms for union members regardless of cost or who is best suited for the job. They affect public schools across the nation.

In Philadelphia, school custodians may replace broken tiles for up to three hours per day. Work beyond that requires central office craftsmen who cost 40% more, not including travel. In Torrance, janitors may replace light bulbs inside schools, but only central office electricians, who cost 40% more, may replace exterior bulbs.

Work rules often build in payroll padding and unnecessary overtime. When a school fire alarm goes off at night in Newark, N.J., -- which happens weekly -- two electricians and a custodian must be dispatched. Each is assured four hours of overtime, even if it takes only 20 minutes.

In New York City, where I directed undercover investigators for three years, school handymen may plaster a hole in a wall if its diameter is less than three inches. For bigger holes, principals must summon central plasterers and wait months, even years, until the backlog of 50,000 orders clears.

The effect of work rules can disrupt learning in other ways. In Los Angeles, school buildings and grounds staff may paint over graffiti only on exterior school walls. Interior walls are reserved for painters from headquarters. One principal, convinced that graffiti encouraged a culture of disrespect, was unwilling to wait for central painters. She held popcorn sales weekly to raise money to hire painters until the district ordered her to stop.

Cutting work-rule fat is difficult. Most districts gave unions so much in the past that they have nothing left to give in exchange for concessions except salary raises. My study, however, suggests some remedies:

* Build trust. The New York City teachers union had to bargain for direct deposit of paychecks, although this saved everyone money. Had managers offered it first, they would have begun to build trust.

* Put principals in charge of school spending and collective bargaining. My study revealed that in districts where principals control significant portions of school budgets and are accountable for performance, most stretch every dollar for education, suggesting that they would not easily agree to senseless work rules.

* Encourage competition by expanding choice. Competition reduces work rules. The auto manufacturing and airline industries were once rife with work rules. But when new firms unbound by work rules entered those markets because of, respectively, competition from Japan and deregulation, established companies had to force work-rule givebacks from unions to survive. Expand children's options to attend private and charter schools, which are free from most rules. To stay competitive, school managers will have to demand work-rule concessions.

* Privatize. Privatization can sweep away many work rules. Paul Vallas, former chief executive of Chicago's schools, eliminated hundreds of work rules by outsourcing entire classes of employees. Once unions understood that he was serious, he merely had to indicate he would privatize to win concessions.

* Act quickly. In December, New York City had a historic opportunity to remove many senseless work rules. City Council hearings had exposed their wastefulness. Newspaper editorials were calling for their repeal. A report showed that privatizing some skilled workers would save $22 million a year. Unfortunately, City Hall dithered. So the unions lobbied, the momentum for reform dissipated, and plans to privatize most skilled workers are now unrealistic.

We can cut waste without leaving children behind. But to do so, we must not be afraid to take on the unions and their work rules.

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