March 13, 2003, 10:29PM

Teachers liken plan to pay cut

Health insurance stipends affected


Austin Bureau

AUSTIN -- Teachers complain that a plan adopted by House budget writers Thursday to slash their health insurance stipends by hundreds of dollars is tantamount to a pay cut.

"This appears to be a year when the Legislature feels like battering teachers," said Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers.

"There is nothing happening in the Texas Legislature that will keep a person in the classroom right now."

Despite protests from educators, the House Appropriations Committee adopted its education subcommittee report recommending that the state reduce cash allowances in the teacher health insurance plan from $1,000 to $550 a year for teachers, counselors and librarians.

Lower-paid support staff -- janitors, clerks, cafeteria workers and bus drivers -- would see their stipends plummet to $300 in a year, while part-time employees would get only $200.

The cutback would save about $442 million for the biennium at a time when lawmakers are searching for ways to erase $10 billion in red ink between now and 2005.

"We're continuing teacher health insurance," the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said.

Pitts added, however, that up to 75 percent of teachers use the stipend to improve their health plans or to help pay premiums for dependents.

The outlay of cash to teachers was part of the teacher health insurance plan created by the Legislature two years ago. Its funding formula includes contributions from the state, individual school districts and the school employees.

Legislators, however, funded the teacher health insurance plan only for the second year of the current budget cycle, meaning they'd have to double the amount for the next biennium if they wanted to keep funding at the same levels.

Teachers are not the only ones feeling the pain of budget cuts. Agency heads and lawmakers are also slashing health budgets for needy children and elderly adults, child protective services and foster care, probation programs in law enforcement and potentially rehabilitation and treatment programs for state prisoners.

Educators, however, noted that nearly every elected official campaigned last year to spend more on education.

The committee also agreed to increase health insurance premiums for retired teachers by 33 percent. Teachers still working would pay $14 more per month by 2005 for their retirement program under the plan.

"We think it's a terrible idea. It's a little bit alarming," said David Pore, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. "They're talking about increasing premiums to men and women that have put in 25 to 30 years as public educators."

The average pension for a public school teacher is $1,700 a month, and Pore said a majority of them worked in districts that opted out of participating in Social Security.

"It seems to be a double disincentive to get teachers and maintaining them," committee member Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said of the health insurance cuts and the retirement premium hikes.

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, said she had thought the poor economy was contributing to the teacher shortage, but educators insist that isn't the case.

The state teacher shortage is estimated at 30,000, and that number could grow to 50,000 over the next 10 years, they say.

"We already have a serious crisis. To take an action that will make it worse is really shortsighted," said Richard Kouri, spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

  April 1, 2003, 12:06AM

Symphony talks hit note of hope; deal awaits vote


Striking Houston Symphony musicians will announce today whether they accept a proposed new contract reached during a weekend of marathon negotiations mediated by Ed Wulfe, a representative of Mayor Lee Brown.

Players have until 10 a.m. to vote on the agreement, which demands major salary concessions and a reduction in the size of the orchestra, according to sources. The results are expected to be announced at a midday news conference

The agreement would end the orchestra's first strike, which began on March 9 The musicians had been playing without a contract since Oct. 5.

If the musicians accept the proposal, the orchestra will play its Saturday-Monday subscription series concerts, with music director Hans Graf and Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie, said management representative Art Kent.

According to sources, crucial parts of the four-year contract include from one to three weeks of unpaid furlough each year, a reduction from 97 members to 92, and changes in work rules, such as audition procedures.

"It's a big concessionary contract," said Cynthia Meyers, a flute and piccolo player.

But she added, now "there is a chance to keep the orchestra at world-class status."

Principal horn player William Ver Meulen, who is taking a leave of absence, disagreed.

"The damage is already done. The exodus (of players) you've seen is unprecedented in the history of a major American orchestra. I've been in the business for 23 years, and I've never seen anything remotely like this."

At least 10 players have publicly announced decisions to leave. Others are auditioning with ensembles elsewhere.

According to sources, the musicians' minimum weekly salary would remain unchanged at $1,425. However, the mandatory weeks of furlough would reduce the minimum annual salary. Players would not return to the $74,100 minimum they were earning prior to the strike until the final year of the contract. Then, according to the sources, the minimum would be approximately $78,500.

The contract also creates a Symphony Advisory Council, linked to the mayor's office, which some musicians believe will open the symphony board and executive committee to greater scrutiny.

"I've never seen a worse contract about how it stacks up against other orchestras, but I voted for it because the structure has changed," said Robert Walp, assistant principal trumpet player.

The tentative settlement was reached in near nonstop negotiations at The Woodlands Conference Center.

Wulfe and attorney Alvin Zimmerman, a former state judge and highly regarded mediator, supervised the discussions.

Musicians credit their involvement with saving the situation.

"The best thing that happened is that the mayor got involved with Ed Wulfe and Alvin Zimmerman," Meyers said. "Their showing interest in the plight of the organization was very important. It's great to see that kind of commitment."

At a meeting with musicians Monday morning, Wulfe gave a "startlingly engaging and clear" talk about the symphony's importance to Houston, Walp said.

Sources also indicated that the city will contribute $200,000 to the orchestra from hotel-motel tax revenues. Foundations also are expected to provide additional funding.

"I'm relieved to see an end to this and a beginning to something else," Meyers said. "There need to be changes. We can't keep making the same mistakes."

Difficult and prolonged negotiations are part of the Houston Symphony's history. The root lies in the decades-old financial problems of the organization, which has run deficits more than two-thirds of the time since 1971.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

  April 1, 2003, 10:09PM

Musicians ratify symphony contract

Settlement ends a 24-day strike in dispute talks


Houston Symphony's musicians have approved a 42-month contract that gives the orchestra breathing room -- but no guarantee -- in its struggle for a secure financial future.

The agreement, worked out last weekend in mediated negotiations, was ratified by a majority of players Tuesday. Their representatives did not disclose the vote.

"This is a step in the process to ensure a future for this great organization," said Jeffrey B. Early, president of the Houston Symphony Society, which manages the orchestra. "But it's only a step."

The players made significant financial concessions, including one to three weeks of unpaid furlough during each season covered by the agreement, which expires Sept. 30, 2006.

Though the minimum weekly pay will remain unchanged, the furloughs will effectively reduce the minimum annual salary in the first three seasons to below the previous contract's $74,100. In the final year, the minimum will rise to $78,540.

However, the two sides agreed that the minimum will rise in the next contract, to the median of all minimum salaries at full-time U.S. orchestras. Mininums at top American orchestras are nearing $100,000 per year.

"This is essential if we are to fulfill our mission of attracting and retaining the finest musicians," said musicians' representative Dave Kirk.

The new contract permits reducing the orchestra size from 97 to 92 players. However, a larger ensemble, using substitutes, will be possible for classical subscription series concerts, as needed.

The ratification ends a 24-day strike by musicians, the first in the orchestra's 90-year history.

Concerts will resume this weekend with a subscription series program featuring Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie. Music director Hans Graf will conduct the performances at 8 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Monday in Jones Hall.

Houston arts leaders praised the agreement while expressing a wait-and-see attitude.

Peter C. Marzio, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, described it as an "intermediate solution."

"People are being creative, and there's a lot of good faith being expressed in this," he said. "Frankly, the musicians should receive a lot of praise for being willing to work with the city and the board."

David Gockley, general director of Houston Grand Opera, said, "I've seen these settlements happen over my 31 years (in the arts). Financial health is always right around the corner. I hope indeed it is this time."

The settlement in no way guarantees a sound future for the orchestra, which continues to struggle with a decades-old history of deficits.

It will produce no immediate effect on the orchestra's finances, said society executive director Ann Kennedy.

She said she still projected a $3 million deficit for the fiscal year ending May 31 and did not foresee a balanced budget until the 2005-06 season.

Kirk said, "The Houston Symphony's need for public support -- both financially and through advocacy for excellence -- has never been more critical."

Gestures of civic support were unveiled at a midday news conference detailing the settlement. Mayor Lee Brown announced a one-time, emergency grant of $241,000 in unallocated funds from the Cultural Arts Council of Houston/Harris County.

The mayor will appoint a Mayor's Symphony Advisory Committee composed of musicians, society representatives and citizens. That process will include town hall meetings seeking public comment.

Management will continue to implement its long-range financial plan calling for aggressive increases in ticket sales and donations, Kennedy said.

A capital fund campaign is being developed that will involve musicians, staff and society trustees.

Brown and others heaped credit for the agreement on real estate developer Ed Wulfe, the mayor's special representative in the negotiations, and mediator Alvin Zimmerman.

They shepherded the final 36 1/2-hour burst of talks Saturday and Sunday at The Woodlands Convention Center.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle