Saturday, September 27, 2008

Econ 101

I have refrained from blogging for quite a while, as it seemed to be angering the SEA - making a difficult situation only worse. At our regular September board meeting, board president Dennis Heban asked for a media blackout while both sides went back to the table. I agreed publicly to comply. I think circumstances this week require me to break silence - we are in a crisis in this district, as you all know.

This past Wednesday, the Tentative Agreement was rejected by the board with a split vote. I cast one of those "no" votes. Let me share just a little bit of my reasoning.

Have you seen the news lately? Our nation is in financial distress. This did not happen overnight. It took decades of people in power choosing to vote on a personal agenda for re-election as a priority instead of voting to do the right thing when it needed to be done. Today we are reaping the consequences of their failure to act in the best interests of the United States, with banks failing almost daily and the stock market plummeting.

When our district teetered on the edge of bankruptcy several years ago, it wasn't because of any one thing or one year of a bizarre and uncontrolled spending spree. No - it was because former members of the board had made short-sighted decisions, choosing to placate the "now" at the expense of the future. Bad choices made year after year continued to compound on top of each other until our school district was in "fiscal caution" - close to being taken over by the state of Ohio. Drastic measures had to be taken: 20+ teachers laid off; programs slashed; a $1.6 million loan obtained; and one year when no general increase was given to those teachers who remained (although the salary steps increases were still awarded - meaning that there was no "pay freeze" then nor at any other time).

It was a terrible time in our district's history, but we got through it together.

Today we have a hard choice before us. The national economy is imploding. Our local economy is also suffering, with unemployment at 10%. The future is uncertain.

The offer we had given to our teaching staff was for a 2.5% increase for each of the next two years, plus a one-time signing bonus. Although we voted unanimously to improve their health insurance plan, we did not include a request for an increase in their premiums. This was the offer that the SEA deemed to be "unworthy of a vote".

In a written letter, the SEA then asked for "binding arbitration" - but in the next sentence they severely limited exactly what the arbitrator could rule on. On the advice of our attorney, we declined this particular "binding arbitration" as we did not want to set precedent on such a limited scope. Please understand: this request was not for a "fact finding" arbitration. In addition, our current contract does not include binding arbitration of any kind, although perhaps that could be a part of negotiations in the future.

The Tentative Agreement demanded by the SEA was for an effective 3.7% general increase the first year and 4.1% the second year, among other things. These percentage amounts are the result of adding signing bonuses and other stipends to the base salary before adding on the general increase. (to help put that into perspective, several schools in Fulton County have recently finished contract negotiations - and have given a 2% raise to their teachers)

At our meeting Wednesday night, Cheryl (our treasurer) handed out copies of a spreadsheet she had prepared that incorporated these numbers. She also included in her calculations the $7.3 million carryover, and the assumption that the income tax levy would pass. She also had removed certain figures. She took out the wages and benefit costs of 2 teachers who are planning to retire, because we wouldn't be able to afford to replace them. She also removed money for programs we had hoped to restore, trying to help this district afford the TA as presented.

Her spreadsheet showed that the TA would put this district into deficit spending by 2011 by almost a half million dollars, and worse each successive year thereafter.

The mood in the room that night was grim. Not one person at the table was pleased with what we saw before us in cold, hard numbers. We talked for around 2 hours, trying to figure out ways we could make it work. But those numbers kept staring us in the face.

Do our teachers deserve a raise? Of course they do! We have many great teachers, and this board wants to give them a fair raise. Was our offer what they wanted? No - but was our offer unfair?? I think the facts show that it clearly was not unfair, nor was it unreasonable.

However - the SEA has issued a strike notice. We now have 5 working days left to hammer out a compromise, as the strike is scheduled to begin Oct. 6th. Both sides are willing to negotiate again. Yet - only the SEA can call off the strike.

Given all of the facts before us, I think it is totally irresponsible for them to hold this district hostage to a wage hike that our district simply cannot afford at this time. But that doesn't mean they should get nothing - only that we need to get back to the table together to find a solution that is fair for both sides.

At a meeting in Memorial Park last night, it was mentioned that parents had hoped for certain programs and staff positions to be brought back. The board would like the same, and we have discussed ways to do so. But we have only a set number of dollars that we can work with, and those dollars need to be used in the best interest of the entire district. I am certain that we can make it happen - but a true compromise requires concessions by both parties.

Please feel free to write or call your school board members. I also encourage you to contact the members of the SEA negotiating team, to let them know your desire that a fair compromise be reached that is in the best interest of our kids and our district. Here are their names and email addresses:

Judi Teague ~ (VicePresident SEA)

Deisa Thielman ~ (lead negotiator)

Darla Omey ~ (President SEA)

Renee Gothke ~
(yes, it is "rgo" as there are multiple "rg's" requiring the need for the "o")

Denise Brehmer ~

We have faced hard times together before - we can do it again. With all of us working together, we can reach a fair compromise and get back to the business of educating our children.

No comments: