The frustration level among Utah teachers appears to be growing as the Legislature starts to cut budgets to fit revenues.
"Teachers are asking: `Do they only listen when you're out there with a picket?' " said Utah Education Association President Lily Eskelsen.Her allusion was to the 1990 Legislative session, when teachers used a one-day walkout and ongoing strike threat to keep legislators aware of their needs. During that session, they got the biggest raise they've had in several years.
The UEA is keeping tabs on its membership's mood and "talking about the types of actions that may be necessary," she said. "There are many options. Whatever we do will be a well-planned, coordinated effort." The organization is bound to keep legislators aware of the commitments that were made last year, she said.
Teachers can't help making comparisons between how they were treated last year when they put on the pressure and this year when UEA leaders have kept a relatively low profile and worked cooperatively within the system, Eskelsen said.
However, 1990 was a year when revenues offered some leeway. This year, final revenue reports have left legislators facing oversize preliminary budgets. For two days, lawmakers have been stalemated as they try to make the cutting as painless as possible.
Eskelsen said that either of the two most popular proposals being bandied on the hill - cutting salary packages or cutting programs - would hurt teachers. "We're up here lobbying for programs as much as we are for salaries," she said. "Last year we saw a little light and we wanted to maintain that momentum."
Although the governor's budget proposals included what was reported to be a 5 percent raise for teachers, 1.8 percent of that amount would have to be used to offset shortfalls in the retirement plan, she said. When regular increments are subtracted, teachers are looking at a 1 percent to 2 percent increase.
Legislators have some options, said the union leader, if they had the courage to use them. They include using money from the $50 million Rainy Day Fund or rebracketing income taxes to raise more money.
It might be argued, she said, that having a $50 million unappropriated fund could be considered a violation of the state's constitutional balanced budget requirement.
"Every time we come up short, everyone starts asking what teachers are willing to do," Eskelsen said. "What is the public willing to do? I wish we would look at education the way the governor looks at the McDonnell Douglas company - as a tremendous potential benefit. But there has to be an initial investment."
She referred to an earlier event Tuesday in which the aerospace company asked for $10 million from the state to help bring a large new plant to Utah. The company would repay the loan and promised to try to attract additional business to the state.
The long-range strategic planning process the state has undertaken to try to resolve some of education's problems is beneficial, but it's moving too slowly, said Eskelsen, and "no one is sure what will come out of it. We have to have something significant to show teachers."
Courses of action
After teachers threaten to strike, they get large salary increases.
Utah Education Association uses low-key lobbying, and union President Lily Eskelsen says members won't be happy with raises of 1 percent to 2 percent.