On Wednesday, Manchester’s Board of School Committee announced that it had reached a contract agreement with the district’s paraprofessionals that would save taxpayers about half a million dollars. A one-line political analysis of the news would read like this: “Paraprofessionals make health insurance concessions, teachers union hardest hit.”
For years the city has struggled under the weight of overly generous union contracts that provide lavish benefits. Mayor Ted Gatsas has tried to bring those benefits closer to what is offered in the private sector. Most city unions have agreed, but the school unions have held out — until last week.
The paraprofessionals pay 7 percent of their health insurance premium costs. The new deal calls for them to pay from 15 to 20 percent. That is still better than in the private sector, but it is progress, which is expected to save city taxpayers $514,000 over two years.
The mayor has been after the teachers union, the Manchester Education Association (MEA), to agree to similar terms. Police have. Firefighters have. Now school district paraprofessionals have. The MEA is on the verge of singling itself out as a uniquely combative and unreasonable union.
With every other union concession, the MEA’s position becomes less tenable. It is clear that the benefits are unreasonably high and that the city could hire more teachers if the benefits were brought down to earth. The MEA has no logical defense of its holdout position. What it has is political clout.
The day before the school board announcement, the MEA exercised that clout. It hosted a fund-raiser for mayoral candidate Patrick Arnold, who hopes to unseat Gatsas and return control of the city to the public employee unions. Overcompensating union employees is THE central budget issue. It also will be the central issue of this election — unless the MEA can divert the people’s attention to something else. This summer, beware of distracting shiny objects.