Musings essential & frivolous

Icky Speaks Up For Teachers

By Dave Badtke

Published on 10/7/2010 by Benicia.Patch.com

. . . Continued from last week

It was two in the morning when my friend Ichbin Überwältigt – Icky, when he's being a pain, the Ichster when he remembers that I, like other humans, need sleep – called to say he was boycotting the City of Benicia. Of course I told him  I wouldn't be able to help him figure out what he was talking about until the morning, which is why I'm sitting here at Rrags on East Second Street, nursing my best-in-the-world medium nonfat latté with extra foam and a Sweet'N Low, when Icky arrives.

He's carrying a bag of papers, looking like a bum who's been rummaging through dumpsters all night with his stained pants, unbuttoned shirt and uncombed hair, his eyes red and glasses so smudged that I'm surprised he was able to drive here.

"You been drinking?" I ask, moving my chair back for fear the smell will be unbearable.

"You bet," he says, throwing his backpack onto the table. "I've been drinking facts all night. Facts about city salaries. Facts about Benicia family incomes. Facts from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Facts about Benicia's compensation philosophy. Facts about the new city manager's salary. Just a whole bunch of facts that are making me so mad that I, that I  . . .," Icky pauses, takes a deep breath, and sits down.

"You didn't sleep?" I say, pushing my latté across the table to him.

"Not a wink, with visions of monthly paychecks dancing in my head."

When he takes a sip of the coffee, I swear his eyes clear a little and the wrinkles in his forehead seem to fade. His back straightens. Might there be something medicinal in a Rrags latté?

He pulls sheets of tables from his bag and pushes them toward me. "It's the salaries of our city employees. Check those columns and weep." (I've included the Ichster's BeniciaPay.pdf.)

I have to admit, running my finger down the Total Pay column, that the numbers are alarming. I start counting the number of city employees who earned more than $100,000 in 2009. "Can this be right?" I ask. "There are 30 firefighters who made more than $100k in 2009. There are 33 policemen who made more than $100k. That's 63 employees right there. That seems like a lot."

"Sure," Icky says, "but why did you draw the line at $100k? There are four more police officers who made more than $90k. Is there any police officer who makes less?"

I'm shaking my head now. "What's this 'other pay' category?"

"Beats the heck out of me," the Ichster says, "but I'd sure like to get me some of that at my work. If you look at the bottom of the chart, in 2009 the City of Benicia paid $1.1 million in overtime pay and $2.4 million in other pay. That comes to roughly $3.5 million. That's 16 percent of total pay in 2009. Just imagine what the teachers could do with that."

"I'm not imagining," I say, pulling my absentee ballot from my computer bag. "I got this yesterday in the mail. I'm supposed to vote on Measure C. If it passes, it'll be a tax of $58 on me, which doesn't sound like much. Certainly, the teachers need it."

Now the Ichster sits up ramrod straight and turns bright red. "No, it's not much if you don't count the other payments you have to make every time you get your property-tax bill. Seems as though it's already as long as my arm. And what's this Measure C going to do for the schools? Something like half a million bucks. Not much, when you consider what teachers make and what they need."

"There's a good question," I say. "What do teachers make?"

"According to Donnell Rubay in the Sept. 17 Benicia Herald," the Ichster says, " '. . . a credentialed Benicia teacher with 24 or more years of experience has a base pay of $49,960.' And teachers each day in class are creating our future, are educating our children. That's pretty lousy pay for people who are so important to our community."

I nod in troubled agreement. "Yeah, I remember reading Rubay's article. There's a lot there to ponder. But maybe we need to pay safety employees more to keep us safe. I mean, I want them to show up at my house if it's on fire or if there's a bad guy at my door."

"Of course, of course," the Ichster says. "But how much is the right amount if the teachers, who have to do a lot of overtime work, never get paid for it? You were just writing in your column about all those hours of grading you have to do. How much do you get paid for each paper you grade?"

"How much?" I repeat, not wanting to answer the question because it's so embarrassing.

"That's right," Icky says, leaning forward across the table in that prosecutorial way he has. "Every time you grade an English paper, how much do you get paid?"

"Nothing," I finally say, thinking that maybe I shouldn't grade papers if I'm not going to get paid.

"Exactly," the Ichster says. "Zero dollars for something like four or five weeks of grading work each semester. And that doesn't count the class preparation time, either. How much do you get paid for that?"

Now I'm starting to look around the room. This is why I didn't start teaching until I had retired from physics. I mean, really, don't all Americans know that you've got to be nuts trying to earn a living by teaching in public schools? "I don't get paid anything for class preparation," I say, thinking that maybe I should forget all this extra stuff and just show up for class. Some of my Solano students have told me that's what their teachers did when they were in high school.

"This is a hard problem," I finally say. "I mean, it doesn't make me comfortable to be comparing teachers' salaries to safety-employees' salaries."

"You don't have to," the Ichster says. "The Bureau of Labor Statistics can do it for you. Look at New York, for example. Where do your younger son and his wife live?"

"New York City, in Harlem," I say.

"Is that an easy place to be a cop?" the Ichster says. "Do the firefighters just get to lie back and relax?"

I laugh. That last time we visited in the spring, there was always some excitement going on near our kids' apartment, especially at night when we were trying to sleep. "New York City can be a tough place," I say, nodding at the memory.

"Well," the Ichster says with satisfaction, as though he had just caught me in a trap, "an experienced, level-6 New York cop makes $35 an hour, about $70k a year. Of course, a detective makes more, $43 per hour, about $86k a year, but it takes a long time to become a detective in New York City. A firefighter makes $31 an hour. And the cost of living, if anything, is higher there than here. Isn't that right?"

"I don't know," I say. "Though it sure didn't seem less expensive. Those houses in Brooklyn the kids were telling us about cost millions. Manhattan, of course, is absurdly expensive."

"Exactly," the Ichster says. "And how much does a New York City teacher make?"

"Not much, I guess."

"Well, your guess would be wrong because an experienced high-school teacher makes more than $57 an hour, which is about $43 an hour when you consider a teacher has about three months off. So a teacher in New York gets about the same pay as a policeman."

"That makes sense," I say, "because then you don't have the safety-employees fighting with the teachers for pay. Both are important. Both get paid well, but not too well."

"Except here in Benicia," the Ichster says, standing, ready to get to work. "That's why I need to boycott Benicia."

"Which means what, exactly?"

"I'm going to put a sign in front of City Hall and then go around town telling people how bad the situation is. Maybe the voters will listen. Maybe I can make something happen for the teachers."

"Are you going to vote for Measure C?" I ask, as much for myself as for the Ichster, but he already had picked up his backpack and dashed out the door, a man on a moral mission: Pay Equity for Benicia.

About this column:

 Dave Badtke gives us some quiddities (he wants you to look it up the definition).
Dave Badtke, who teaches English at Solano College, can be contacted at Dave@Badtke.com. Find his blog at Badtke.com and copies of this and older columns at QCounty.com.