OPINION | Teachers are taking a much deeper pay cut than PSS management

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I SINCERELY wish I didn’t need to write this, as I think it is important for the school system’s stakeholders to unify in the face of cuts to education.

I don’t want to sow division, but I feel I have been left with no alternative. I have repeatedly brought this issue to the attention of the school system, at multiple BOE meetings, but many people in PSS have not acknowledged the legitimacy of this concern.

On March 4, the CNMI State Board of Education voted to implement an austerity measure for the CNMI Public School System. On the surface, the austerity measure appears to consist of a 20% across-the-board pay cut for all PSS employees, corresponding to the implementation of 32-hour, Fridayless workweeks starting April 6, and this is how the cut is being advertised. In fact, the contract addendum PSS employees are being asked to sign, giving their assent to this austerity measure, only seems to cover a 20% pay cut and corresponding work hour reduction. However, for teachers, counselors, librarians, teacher aides and others, the planned pay cut will actually be far deeper than the 20% reduction PSS is claiming.

For teachers and many other school-level employees, the cuts will be disproportionate to the reduction in work hours, and the cuts will be far deeper than the cuts to PSS management.

In order to explain the disparity in the cuts, allow me to provide some necessary background on the different employment situations of different groups of PSS employees.

Teachers, in addition to many other school-level employees at PSS, are 190-day employees. This means that we are contracted to report to work for exactly 190 days each year, and our annual salaries are earned exclusively over the 190 days that we report to work. However, the commissioner of education, associate commissioners, directors, program coordinators, principals etc. are year-round employees who report to work all year, which means that their annual salaries are earned throughout the entire calendar year.

Teachers only earn money during the 190 days we are contracted to report to work, and during portions of the year outside of those 190 days, when teachers don’t report to work, teachers are paid what we previously earned. Year-round employees, however, earn their salaries throughout the entire year, and their biweekly paychecks always reflect money they earned during the immediately preceding pay period.

So, despite the fact that teachers are 190-day employees, our salaries are paid out year-round on a biweekly basis, just like the salaries of year-round employees. The fact that 190-day employees and year-round employees are both paid year round is what allows PSS to implement a highly inequitable cut with the appearance of a uniform across-the-board cut.

An organization can only cut pay that its employees haven’t earned yet. For teachers, our unearned pay is our salaries for the remaining portion of our 190 contracted days When PSS implemented an austerity measure last spring, leadership seemed to realize this, and PSS decided not to implement that cut until the end of the payout for School Year 2018-2019 because teachers’ 190 contracted days were already almost complete. However, now PSS intends to implement a mid-year cut starting April 6.

Here’s the problem for PSS, which collapses the false narrative that this is a 20% across-the-board cut: by April 6, PSS teachers will already have completed 139 of their 190 days for this school year (exempting typhoon days). That means that on April 6, teachers will already have earned 73% of the payout which happens outside the 190 days. There are only 51 days left of the 190 days during which teachers will be earning our salaries. PSS can only cut salaries during the period for which they are being earned; no employer can legally cut previously earned pay.

Any pay cut to PSS employees can only apply to the remaining days of our 190-day contracts. As a result, if PSS implemented a 20% pay cut starting April 6, that cut would only apply to pay which is earned during the remaining 51 days of our 190 contract days:

(139/190) x (100%) + (51/190)x(80%) = 95%

If 190-day employees were only subject to a 20% pay cut starting April 6, we will still have earned 95% of our pay for the year, which would have to be paid out in biweekly installments upon completion of our 190 days.

But PSS wants to cut biweekly paychecks for all of its employees starting April 6, and continue that cut through the rest of the summer. In order to do this, PSS needs to either fail to pay teachers money which we will have already earned once our 190 days are complete, or it will need to implement a deeper cut for the remaining 51 days of our 190 days, during which we are still earning money. Of course PSS cannot fail to pay teachers money which they have already earned, because that would be an obvious breach of our contracts and a major legal liability, not to mention the outsize effect cutting previously earned pay would have on retention and recruitment far into the future. That wouldn’t be a real option.

So how deep will the cuts to teachers need be for the remaining 51 days of the school year, starting April 6 in order to justify an average 20% cut in biweekly paychecks that will continue through the summer payout of previously earned pay?

By my estimate, before the cut, PSS teachers would have earned the equivalent of 49 workdays of summer pay by the end of their 190 days for School Year 2019-2020. This 49-day figure is based on our August 27, 2019 start date for our 190 days. However, PSS wants to pay teachers for only 39 days of the summer, as if we had worked four-day, Fridayless weeks all year, which of course was not the case.

(51 remaining contract days)x(the REAL new rate with the cuts)+(49 days of summer pay)=(42 remaining contract days without Fridays) + (39 days of summer pay). (the REAL new rate with the cuts)= 62.7%

The cuts to teachers will not be 20% for the remainder of our 190 days, but rather 37.3% for the remainder of our 190 days.

What this means is that my annualized salary for the period of April 1 to June 18, the only period during which I will earn pay at PSS before next school year will go from $34,563 a year to $21,671 a year. Meanwhile, the annualized salaries of managers during this same period will only go down by 20%. This cut is far deeper than advertised, the cut is not in proportion to the work hour reduction, and it is far deeper than the cuts being made to management.

If teachers have to take a 37.3% pay cut from April 6 to the end of their 190 contract days, June 18, then senior management should have to as well. After June 18, when teachers have completed their 190 day contract period, PSS management salaries can be partially restored such that the cut is then only 20%. When the next 190 day period starts, teachers and managers can all start the school year with this 20% cut.

The PSS management narrative is that PSS employees should not direct their anger towards PSS leadership, but rather the people who determine the PSS budget. I have more than my share of anger towards the people who set the PSS budget, but they didn’t determine that PSS teachers should take a much deeper cut than PSS management. PSS management has told its employees that everyone is going to need to endure the hardships associated with the economic downturn. I accept the necessity of a cut, but I do not accept how inequitable the cut will be for teachers compared to management. While the salary cuts for teachers remain so severe compared to the cuts to managers, the obscene inequity makes it impossible to buy into management’s narrative of unity.

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