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Gatsas' timely reminder: City teacher benefits are the issue

Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas has helpfully recentered the discussion about city school spending. Everyone who cares about Manchester's public schools needs to pay attention.

A tight budget this year led to teacher layoffs and increased class sizes. Some upset parents have demanded that the city override the tax-and-spending cap so more money can be raised and spent on hiring teachers. But a great deal of this frustration is based on the myth that the school budget was cut. It was not.

Total city school spending, including money taken from expendable trusts, is up by $1.6 million over last year. General fund spending on pay and benefits is $2.8 million higher than last year.

Also, student enrollment has declined for the past four years. As we noted last summer, since the 2007-08 school year, enrollment has fallen by 4.7 percent and the teaching staff has fallen by 6.6 percent. Yet we are spending millions more on city schools. What are we spending it on? Teacher compensation.

An overly generous contract with the Manchester Education Association guaranteed teacher pay raises of 2.5 percent a year every year since 2010. And the contract's health benefits are way out of line with the private sector. Teachers enjoy $5 copays and no deductibles. They contribute only 7 percent to their health insurance premiums. The private-sector average is 32 percent.

On Wednesday Gatsas renewed his call for teacher compensation concessions. (The teachers' contract expires this summer.) Most city departments, including police and fire, have agreed to benefits concessions that saved money and allowed the city to avoid some layoffs. The city was able to hire new police officers with the savings in that department.

"If we could implement the same split on health care in the school system that we have in other city departments, we could save 16 percent of the school budget," Gatsas said in his annual State of the City address on Wednesday. "That's enough to hire 80 more teachers and reduce class size."

The mayor should make clear that he is open to discussing spending more on city schools - after the Manchester Education Association has agreed to a new contract that includes reasonable benefits and realistic pay adjustments. That has to come first.

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