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School Board wants fair settlement without sacrifice

Posted: December 13, 2013 - 12:07am

When things get tough in collective bargaining it makes for emotional and anxious times in our school district and our community. After all, we are talking about our children and the people we trust to educate and care for them every day. These are people we all care about, value and respect.

Over the past four years, the school district has been able to provide competitive salaries and exceptional benefits to our teaching staff. During that time, teachers have received between 9 and 25 percent increases in pay, depending upon where they are in the salary schedule. Last year, teachers received step and column increases along with an $100 increase in health benefits. This year, there is no increase on the salary schedule, but the budget includes $463,000 so that 75 percent of teachers can receive step and column increases (usually about 3%).

Over time, the school district has offered a competitive compensation package that has kept up with the cost of living, offered step and column increases, and provided premium benefits at a low cost to teachers. When the benefits are added to salary levels, the overall compensation package is one of the best in the state.

The school district’s most recent proposal includes funding for another step and column increase for eligible teachers as well as increases in salaries, health insurance, personal leave and professional leave. The estimated cost of the school district proposal (above the $463,000 step and column increases) is approximately $382,000 over two years, with a “re-opener” for the third year.

Inherent in any tense process is the opportunity for misinformation to cloud the issues and cause bad feelings on all sides. As the school district and teachers’ union continue to work through the process of arbitration, both sides have agreed to sit down to discuss some of these misunderstandings. At the same time, it is important for our community to have some facts to help understand the situation.

Budget for Teacher Salaries

One of the issues in this debate is a misunderstanding by the teachers union of the budget item regarding certificated salaries and the number of positions that the item funds. The union contends that the school district budgeted $28 million for teacher salaries to be divided up by the number of teachers, but only spent $24,411,279. This is not accurate.

The fact is that the $28,231,921 million that the union references is for “Certificated Salaries.” This number includes: regular teacher salaries in addition to money to cover teacher personal leave; extra stipends to special education teachers; salaries paid to teachers in the CARES after school credit recovery program and in the special education summer school; extra days for counselors and psychologists to be able to do their work beyond the regular 183-day teacher contract; district services provided to the Juneau Community Charter School; and stipends to those who attend teacher training outside of the contract day. These costs total $1,062,789.

Certificated Salaries also includes salaries for 5.27 administrators who hold certificates but are not members of the teachers union, in the amount of $558,678.

The $28 million figure used by the union includes $1,587,287 in special education grant funding that is double counted.

The district has been unable to fill 10 specialized positions locally, so it contracts with national firms to provide services to meet student needs at a cost of $692,790 this year. (This is the 10 FTE difference between the budgeted 370 teachers and 359.19 teachers in the union.)

Other costs covered by the $28 million, but not included in the union analysis, are related to district activities, vocational teachers, career transition teachers, psychologists and grants. After accounting for the above obligations, the amount available for teacher salaries is $24,722,003.

The fact is that the $4 million does not exist. I wish it were true, but it is not.

The amount budgeted for the number of teachers this year is consistent with the amount budgeted for the number of teachers last year. A recent audit of the school district financial statements by Elgee Rehfeld and Mertz, LLC did not reveal significant funds left over at the end of the year.

Budgeted Reserves

Each year, expected revenues are budgeted with the goal of maintaining as many student programs as possible, keeping the pupil-to-teacher ratio as low as possible and providing fair compensation to our employees. Each year, our fiscally responsible principals, directors and supervisors use their allocated funding without overspending their budgets. This results in some savings that can be made available the following school year. This year, that $754,000 in our savings account helped make up a $732,000 shortfall due to 103 fewer students enrolling in our district.

Other school districts have been fortunate to have money in their reserves to help fund increases. As budgets have gotten tighter, the amount that we can deliberately set aside for emergency needs has grown smaller. That special reserve is less than one percent. We continue to spend down our savings account to cover annual expenses.

In the current budget, 91 percent of the Operating Fund goes toward salaries and benefits. Given our precariously low reserves, any additional cost increases come at the expense of remaining programs and class sizes.

It is the goal of the school board to reach a fair settlement with its teachers that doesn’t sacrifice programs that we believe improve student achievement.

• Sally Saddler is a Juneau resident and president of the Juneau School District Board of Education. She is serving in her sixth year as a member of the board.

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