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Are state, teacher unions really representing interests of members?

If you can’t kill the messengers, at least raise some money off them.

That seemed to be the approach taken by the leadership of the Connecticut State Employees Association after this columnist and this newspaper shared some unpleasant realities with the Connecticut public.

In November, CSEA launched an email membership and fundraising drive with the subject line, “State of CT Retiree Benefits Are Being Threatened.” The email included excerpts from a mid-September editorial of The Day and a mid-October column of mine.

The Day and I warned – not threatened – of the collision of the impending fiscal crisis and the disastrous underfunding of the State Employee Retirement Fund. The Day excerpt said: “And state pensioners should be ready to take a modest haircut or risk losing their pension payments, or some portion of them, if the system goes bankrupt.” My excerpt said, “It is not much of an exaggeration to say that Connecticut faces a choice between sustaining its own operations and saving SERF.”

I’ll come back to this.

Schools should be open

As for another massive public-sector union, the Connecticut Education Association, meaning the teachers union, I’ve pushed back in my commentary against CEA demands to close schools, beginning with its demand around Thanksgiving that Gov. Ned Lamont close all schools statewide until mid-January, unless the governor imposed and enforced a set of CEA-designed safety protocols for COVID-19.

My columns pointed out that schoolchildren have virtually no risk from COVID-19 and that there was no data about in-school spread. Now, there is. Last week the CDC released its first two studies of in-school spread, first, a study of the experience of 17 Wisconsin schools that operated in-person from August through November, and, second, a review of reports from around the world about virus contagion in schools.

In the Wisconsin study, there were only seven cases of in-school infection – and only of students – among 4,900 students and 650 teachers and staff, who wore masks and practiced social distancing. The second study concluded that there has been little spread in schools overseas.

Here in Connecticut, there's similar evidence. The Greenwich public school system is one of the few big districts in the state which have operated in-person. Greenwich has followed a full five-day schedule for elementary and middle schools and a hybrid routine for the high school, excepting only approximately 15% of the town's students and teachers who opted for fully remote learning from the start. The Greenwich district is comprised of 16 schools with 9,100 students and well over 1,000 staff.

The town has recorded 14 individuals infected in-school for the school year to date.

Nevertheless, Jeff Leake, President of CEA, wrote letters to the editors of several newspapers criticizing my columns, despite that I cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Here's the up-to-date CDC data for the whole nation:

only 191 school-age deaths. During the 2019-2020 school year, more kids died of the seasonal flu (195). Even when infected, kids rarely suffer serious cases: of the 124,000 total COVID-19 hospitalizations, only about 1,150 have been school-age children.

In his letters, Leake cited data from the American Academy of Pediatrics showing "nearly 179,000 COVID-19 cases in children in just the last week of December, bringing the total reported cases in children to more than two million (2.6 million now)."

Not so alarming

Sounds alarming, right?

Not at all, the very next sentence in the AAP report said, "At least 172 children had died as of Dec. 17. About 1.8% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations and 0.07% of the deaths have been among children." These percentages align with the CDC data.

We should be guided by this data and the new CDC studies.

Yet fear, instead of science, is continuing to drive opposition to in-school instruction. Last week, Fran Rabinowitz, Executive Director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents warned about a possible retreat from in-person schooling in late February if COVID cases spike as a result of the new more contagious strains of the virus.

Danbury Superintendent Sal Pascarella went much further, saying he was "going to try to really make the case to see if we can – pardon the expression – jump ahead of the line to get our teachers and staff in there (vaccinated)," by implication, before reopening the city's schools which have been closed all year.

That's an outrageous request when half of citizens over the age of 75 have yet to be vaccinated; over 80% of COVID-19 fatalities in the state have been people over age 70. Virtually all teachers are younger.

Instead of jumping teachers to the front of the line and stoking fear about a possible spike from the new strains of the virus, we should focus upon the definite impact of the vaccinations now underway. We are only weeks away from COVID deaths in Connecticut going to near-zero and serious cases dropping drastically.

Why? Because we have finished vaccinating nursing home residents and staff, where over half of Connecticut's COVID-19 fatalities have occurred. Soon all citizens over 75 who are willing will be vaccinated.

To his credit, Governor Lamont weighed in last Thursday, saying "Right now, I think the vaccines are going to be able to stay ahead of whatever risk there is there (from the new virus variants)."

Now is not the time to close schools, or to delay re-opening schools, or to jump mostly younger teachers ahead of their much more vulnerable elders in the line for vaccinations. Last Wednesday, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said, "There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated."

State Fiscal Crisis

Getting back to Connecticut State Employees Association and the state's fiscal crisis, there is surprising good news. Tax revenue is surging. The official state tax revenue projection for the current fiscal year is about $2 billion, or 15%, higher since The Day Editorial Board and I wrote our commentaries. The surge will eliminate the current fiscal year deficit.

About $700 million of the surge comes mostly from stock market gains, reflecting a skyrocketing market now at historically high levels. It is better to be lucky than smart.

Another $550 million comes from sales taxes. In 2019, Democrats expanded greatly the number of items taxed.

Nevertheless, state budget officials still project a $4.3 billion deficit in the next two-year budget, reflecting the factors about which The Day and I wrote early last fall.

So, the only thing that has changed since then is timing. The crisis has been delayed. I stand by the conclusion of my column, "there are only three ways to avoid the financial crisis: (1) massive tax increases and/or service cuts (2) significant cuts in state employee benefits and/or (3) a federal bailout."

No doubt, I will remain infamous to teacher and state employee union leaders, but maybe not to union members, including teachers who might not like that Leake's proposal leaves the inevitable impression that they lack dedication.

For their part, state employees may not be aware that, while their union leaders have negotiated outlandishly generous pay and benefits, those leaders have knowingly allowed the benefits to go grossly underfunded. They authorized Gov. Malloy in 2017 and Gov. Lamont in 2019 to reduce scheduled state contributions to the retirement fund over the next decade.

But the union leadership's positions seems to be, "Why worry?"

Red Jahncke (Twitter: @RedJahncke) is president of The Townsend Group Intl. LLC, a Connecticut business consulting firm. He is an occasional contributor to The Day opinion pages.

 

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