Yellow Springs School Board

School fiscal crunch is topic of a community meeting

There was an “elephant in the room” at the June 17 emergency Committee of the Whole school board meeting to discuss the district’s financial shortfall, according to villager Rachel McKinley. The “elephant” that no one had acknowledged initially was “the need for school staff to make salary reductions,” she said at the meeting, which was attended by about 50 teachers, parents and community members.

The board called the emergency meeting to address the district’s current and growing financial shortfall. The district is expecting a deficit of about $600,000 for the 2009–2010 school year, and projects a $900,000 deficit next year if no cuts are made.

Once stated, the need for salary adjustments was repeated by several parents, and board member Richard Lapedes appealed to the Yellow Springs Education Association, the teachers union, to accept a salary freeze.

During the most recent contract negotiations between the school district and the teachers union, which took place before the economic downturn, the school district appeared to be in healthy shape, Lapedes said. Consequently, the resulting contract for teachers included a 3 percent yearly cost of living raise, along with an average 1.9 percent raise for those eligible for step increases.

“It seemed appropriate to share then. We gave when we could and now we’re in trouble. Now it’s their turn to reciprocate in kind and I hope they will,” Lapedes said of the union.

However, union members have already shown their commitment to helping address the fiscal squeeze, according to YSEA President Becky O’Brien, who spoke later in the meeting. She cited $150,000 in cuts that union leaders agreed to when they met last month with administrators to find ways to decrease the deficit. Those cuts were largely in supplies and compensation for teachers who sponsor extracurricular activities.

“We feel we have been cooperative,” she said, stating that union leaders repeatedly responded to requests from district leaders to meet and consider cost savings.

However, the union voted to not renegotiate the contract, which would be the only way that salary changes can be made at this time. YSEA members “decided not to change the integrity of the recent contract,” according to O’Brien.

At the end of the meeting, the board voted to accept the 2010–2011 Education Plan and district budget with a deficit no larger than $750,000, which reflects $150,000 in budget cuts that district administrators and union leaders previously agreed to. However, while the board agreed to the cap on the deficit, they left open until a later meeting decisions as to where exactly those budget reductions will be made, in response to several concerns raised at the meeting.

At a past meeting, Interim Superintendent Tony Armocida had stated that $150,000 in budget cuts is not a sufficient amount to address the fiscal emergency but is the greatest amount possible without agreement from the YSEA. At the June 17 meeting, Lapedes called for a deficit for the coming school year of no more than $300,000.

The board also unanimously agreed that Board President Sean Creighton will write a letter to the teachers union, asking that they agree to re-open contract negotiations. While O’Brien had already stated at the meeting that the union would not do so, the board sought a written answer to the request.

Faster than expected

“Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong,” said District Treasurer Dawn Weller in her presentation on the budget. “And it happened quickly.”

The sluggish economy is fueling the school district’s troubles, with income tax receipts this year down 30 percent, and projected to remain at this level for at least another year, perhaps more, according to Weller. Income tax revenues provide about 15 percent of the district’s income.

State funding, which also provides about 15 percent of district revenues, has also dipped slightly, and is projected to keep declining, Weller said.

The state in recent years eliminated business personal property taxes, which had previously provided about $400,000 annually out of a $7 million budget, Weller said. While the district does not yet feel the full effect of this drop due to temporary state reimbursements, those reimbursements will be phasing out in upcoming years.

And real estate taxes, which provide about 45 percent of district revenues, are largely static due to a lack of new construction and static property values, Weller said.

At the same time income is falling, expenses are rising at the rate of about 4 percent yearly, Weller said. The main reason for the increase is staff salaries and benefits, which together account for more than 80 percent of district expenses. These costs are expected to continue to rise until salaries and benefits could account for more than 90 percent of the total budget, a situation which is considered unsustainable, Weller said.

According to the district salary schedule, the base salary for local teachers is $33,450 for a new teacher with a bachelors degree. A new teacher with a masters can receive $38,969.

The district has a step schedule to reward teachers for both experience and education acquired. A mid-career teacher can receive about $53,687 with a bachelors degree, and $64,057 for a masters with 45 credit hours. A longtime teacher at the top of the step schedule receives $61,953 with a bachelors degree and can receive $78,825 with a masters and 45 credit hours.

The beginning teachers’ salaries are on the low end of average area salaries, while the middle and veteran teachers are on the high end of average area teacher salaries, Armocida said. The school district has a relatively large number of veteran teachers, which is a factor in the budget deficit.

Recently hired superintendent Mario Basora is being paid $105,000 annually, while new Treasurer Weller was hired at $99,700. The new Yellow Springs High School principal, Tim Krier, was hired in at $91,000 while the new Mills Lawn principal, Matthew Housh, is being paid $83,000.

However, when the number of days worked is factored in, the per diem costs of senior teachers is about the same as the cost of the superintendent, and is more than the treasurer and principals, according to Weller, who had been asked by Lapedes to compile the information, since teachers work a shorter year than do administrators.

“It’s a canard to assume we overpay administrators,” Lapedes said.

Due to a one-time influx of cash for a business restructuring several years ago, the district does continue to have a cash surplus, which for the 2009–2010 school year is $2,840,448, and projected for next year to be $1,920,796. However, due to the growing deficit spending, the surplus will be gone by the 2012–2013 school year, and the district will be in the red, according to figures presented to Weller.

Community input

Concerns raised by parents and community members at the June 17 meeting included extracurricular activites budget cuts, ways to reduce contracted services for special education students and the complexity of asking teachers to freeze wages when new administrators have just been hired at relatively large salaries.

A group of involved parents called on all district staff to accept a freeze, according to group representative Amy Scott, who made the request as one of four recommendations to the board.

Stating that the group is “in full support of the schools and applauds this year’s efforts on the part of teachers and administrators to improve the quality of education,” Scott called on teachers, staff and administrators to accept a salary freeze for the coming year.

“The Yellow Springs community has continually supported its schools; we are now asking teachers and administrators to help us through this financial crisis,” she said.

The group also recommended that the board take steps to facilitate early retirement for veteran teachers, that there be cuts in custodial service that are combined with opportunities for students to assume some custodial responsibilities, and that the board re-examine its contract with the Educational Services Center for possible places to cut costs.

Several speakers emphasized that teachers shouldn’t be expected to be the only staff to take a pay cut, and that recent new administrators were hired in at much higher salaries than teachers make.

“You’re paying premium salaries to the administrative staff, then turning around and saying the teachers should take cuts,” Rachel McKinley said. “That sends a message.”

Several community members opposed the proposal that $80,000 of the $150,000 in budget cuts come from discontinuing the funding of extracurricular activities. The cuts are for teachers’ stipends for sponsoring the activities, which include such activities as Power of the Pen, school theater productions, School Forest and Mock Trial.

The activities could continue if teachers volunteer to sponsor them, Armocida said.

However, funding for coaches of athletics had not been cut, which raised an argument from several community members.

“Extracurriculars are the heart of what we’re about,” said former school board member Judy Leighty. “If you take those away, you’re taking away something of special value to the community.”

He had included athletics in the upcoming budget because some teams needed to start their practices this summer, Armocida said. Eliminating athletics could save about $100,000 from the district budget, he said.

School board members agreed to look more closely at both athletic and non-athletic extracurriculars before making cuts of specific activities.

Several community members questioned the district spending on its special education program, which a recent audit had identified as being higher than most peer schools. Because the Yellow Springs district is so small, many services need to be contracted out, and the district pays a significant amount, $460,000, to the Greene County Educational Services Center for those services, according to a handout from Weller.

Armocida said he is exploring other area educational service centers to see if money could be saved by contracting elsewhere.

Near the end of the meeting, Board Vice-President Benji Maruyama described the event as “Yellow Springs at its best. When times get tough, we get together to figure it out.”

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