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Jim Kenyon: Vt.-NEA Chief’s Grade-A Pay

Joel Cook has been a fixture in the Vermont Statehouse for 30 years. When he’s not monitoring proceedings in legislative committee rooms, where proposed laws are crafted and debated, he often can be found having one-on-one chats with lawmakers in the cafeteria.

Cook, 66, is the executive director and chief lobbyist for the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association. It’s his job to promote and protect the interests of Vermont’s 8,000 public school teachers at the Statehouse.

However admirable that cause might be, I had no idea that running the teachers’ union in Vermont could be so financially rewarding. In the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31, 2012, Cook received $231,983 in total compensation, according to Vermont-NEA’s most recent federal income tax return available to the public. The package consisted of a $150,817 annual salary and $81,166 in “other compensation,” which Cook told me was a retirement plan benefit.

It marked the second year in a row that Cook’s compensation package had topped $225,000.

In a state where the average teacher salary is about $48,000, that’s a good deal. And Cook isn’t the only Vermont-NEA employee making big bucks. Ten other employees at the nonprofit organization headquartered in Montpelier were paid $109,000 or more during the 2012 fiscal year.

Meanwhile, Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe, of Norwich, who was recently named to the post by Gov. Peter Shumlin, makes $124,000 annually. As a public employee, Holcombe is paid with tax dollars. I’d argue that most of Cook’s earnings come from state taxpayers as well.

Why’s that?

Roughly 70 percent of Cook’s salary is paid through the dues that Vermont-NEA collects from teachers and other school workers (more on them shortly) whose paychecks are supported with property tax dollars. In Vermont, a full-time teacher pays $600 or so a year in union dues.

When I talked with Cook at the Statehouse last Wednesday, he acknowledged that he and other state NEA employees are well paid, particularly by Vermont standards. Cook, a lawyer by training, has been with the NEA for 22 years, the last 13 as executive director. (Prior to joining the NEA, he lobbied in Montpelier for an advocacy group for the elderly and served as commissioner of the state Department of Aging and Disabilities in the 1980s.)

“I’m engaged in this work because I know the linchpins to the creation and sustenance of a strong middle class are a strong public education system and a strong union-friendly environment,” Cook told me. “Recent attacks around the nation on public education and unions have definitely contributed to the weakening of the middle class.”

At the NEA, “we have a professional cadre, most of whom have risen from the ranks of Vermont teachers,” Cook said. President Martha Allen is a former teacher and school librarian in the Northeast Kingdom. She earned $109,231, according to the NEA’s 2012 federal tax return. The Vermont-NEA also has six so-called field directors — all former teachers — who each made $123,914. The field directors develop and negotiate collective bargaining agreements with towns and school districts around the state. They also assist teachers and other school workers in grievance proceedings.

I asked Cook by email about where he thought Vermont teachers would be without the NEA. Until the NEA began advocating for them strongly in the 1980s, Vermont teachers were among the lowest-paid in the country, Cook wrote back.

“A union, at best, ensures that its members are paid a decent wage, offered good benefits and working conditions, treated fairly and given a voice in their profession,” he said.

Lance Mills, of Fairlee, teaches at River Bend Career and Technical Center in Bradford, Vt. Last year, he was elected to Vermont-NEA’s governing board, which approved Cook’s compensation package.

“We need professional people representing us at the Statehouse,” said Mills, indicating that he had no problem with the salaries of Cook and other NEA staffers. “If we didn’t have them, teachers and support staff wouldn’t make what they do in the state.”

Along with bargaining on behalf of teachers, Vermont-NEA represents about 4,000 educational support staffers, including some bus drivers, custodians and teachers’ assistants. They pay about $300 a year in union dues, or roughly half as much as teachers.

Historically, Vermont teachers and support staffers who opted not to join the NEA didn’t pay dues. But last year, after fierce lobbying by the NEA and other unions, the Legislature passed a bill that requires all school, state and municipal employees who are covered by a collective bargaining agreement to pay union dues, regardless of whether they are members.

State Sen. Peg Flory, a Rutland County Republican, opposed so-called union “fair share” fees, partly because she knew the salaries of Vermont-NEA’s top employees. “It just didn’t feel right to me that a bus driver has to contribute part of his salary to someone making $120,000 a year,” she told me.

I asked Sen. Dick McCormack, a Windsor County Democrat, what he thought about 11 Vermont-NEA leaders making six-figure salaries.

“That’s internal union stuff,” said McCormack, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. “It’s not up for me to say.”

Former Gov. Jim Douglas, who was visiting the Statehouse last Wednesday, didn’t seem surprised when I mentioned that few lawmakers were willing to talk for the record about NEA salaries. With 12,000 members, the NEA is the state’s largest union. The NEA’s influence in Monteplier is “substantial,” said Douglas. “It has the ear of many legislators.”

As the saying goes, “Teachers vote.” And apparently, they’re willing to pay their union leaders handsomely so lawmakers don’t forget.