St. Charles Herald-Guide

Boss Jindal vs. state workers

Special to the Herald-Guide - March 16, 2012

By John Maginnis, LaPolitics.com

Martha Manuel is not the first political appointee to be fired for criticizing a governorís policies. Bobby Jindal is not the first governor to be unpopular with state workers.

But the combination of issues affecting state employees and teachers, including pay, privatization, retirement and tenure, has the legislative session starting with the most contentious and soured relationship between a governor and the state workforce in memory.

Manuelís complaint went beyond personnel issues to the administrationís planned transfer of the Governorís Office of Elderly Affairs, which she headed, to the Department of Health and Hospitals. The budget item already had caused an uproar among Councils on Aging across the state. Manuel said she was not consulted on the move and doubted that it would improve services to seniors, as claimed by the administration. She would have been fired that afternoon had she not waited until the next morning to answer her phone.

The dismissal of Manuel has been criticized for the chilling effect it will have on agency heads testifying before the Legislature. But, then, political appointees already know to chill in expressing policy views different from the governorís. Manuel knew too, but figured she was a short-timer anyway and didnít care. Classified workers and teachers meanwhile are reviewing their own rights to express their opposition toward administration proposals to lawmakers and the general public. In response to a large volume of calls, Civil Service has posted on its website guidelines for state workers wishing to contact legislators (OK if not using state phones or computers) and to attend public rallies (permitted during work hours, if granted leave).

Among their grievances, the current budget would cause layoffs through privatizing more state services. Pay raises are not included in the budget for the third year, though department heads can grant 4 percent increases if they can find the money in their tight budgets. (Good luck.) Workers also oppose the latest plan to have a third-party administrator operate an employee health plan now run by the Office of Group Benefits.

Then there are the teachers, whose job security is under assault by Jindalís proposed upheaval of the tenure system. Union leaders have asked them to show up in force at the Capitol this week, when the governorís education bills come up in committee.

House Bill 974 would effectively end tenure for those who donít already have it. Instead of a new teacher only having to pass through a three-year probationary period, as is now the law, the bill would grant tenure only to teachers rated "highly effective" for five straight years under the new performance evaluation program, which relies heavily on standardized tests.

The Department of Education estimates that as few as ten percent of teachers will be rated highly effective in any year. Teachers who can do that five years in a row wonít need tenure, because school districts would be competing to hire them. At the other end of the bell curve, a teacher would lose tenure under the bill if rated ineffective for only one year--putting them in the bottom ten percentile, according to DOE estimates--and could be fired if still rated ineffective after two more years.

The governorís allies can make the point that a bottom ten percenter doesnít belong in the classroom. The teachers and their union representatives will argue that the new performance evaluation system contains too many flaws and unanswered questions to be rushed into use this year. They also point to factors beyond teachersí control, such as larger class sizes and more legal restrictions on imposing discipline.

As heated as the tenure controversy will be, lawmakers are relieved that the governorís proposed changes to pension systems exclude teachers, for they already have been getting an earful from state workers. Most controversial are bills to increase the retirement age to 67 for those not yet 55 and to increase employee pension contributions from 8 percent to 11 percent of pay. The state would contribute three percentage points less if the bill passes, with the savings going not to pay down the huge retirement system debt, but, rather, to balance the governorís cash-strapped budget.

Lawmakers doubt those two retirement changes can pass as written. But, with a new Legislature eager to please, the bulk of Jindalís proposals affecting state employees and teachers could well become law, no matter how hard they fight him.

He did not run to be boss of the year.