Source: Sherman Publications

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Finding facts in Brandon District

by Susan Bromley

November 21, 2012

How much can the Brandon School District afford to pay its teachers?

With wages the major sticking point in contract negotiations with the Brandon Education Association, the Brandon School Board has announced they will use "fact finding," a state process in which an administrative law judge will examine assertions from both district officials and the teachers' union, then provide a non-binding report on the findings in an effort to help the two sides reach agreement.

Negotiations have been ongoing since February, long before the BEA contract expired in June. A state-appointed mediator was brought in to help resolve differences in August. Mediation will continue during the fact finding process.

Agreement has been reached on a number of issues, but the BEA and board remain "far apart" on salary.

"With ongoing deficit spending, the board must seek concessions from the teachers' union as it has from the other employees and bargaining groups," said Janice Meek, executive director of business services. "The district runs the risk of depleting the fund balance and being unable to adopt a lawful budget."

BEA President Patrick Montgomery disagreed with Meek's statement.

"Our position is that their numbers do not support the conclusion that they will have an operating deficit," he said. "Everything is on the table, but we have made counter proposals that would benefit the teachers and not bankrupt the district. At this point, they have $2.7 million in the bank. We don't support their claim that they are going to be broke in 2014. Absolutely not. There are too many variables between now and that time. We are on salary and step freeze the last two years. Any kind of raise we would consider as a gain."

Meek presented a financial analysis of the district during the school board's Nov. 19 meeting, during which the board also approved an amendment to the 2012-13 budget which was approved in the spring with total expenditures of $28,467,287. It has now been amended for a $702,701 increase in expenditures, to a total of $29,169,988. The fund balance, previously anticipated to increase slightly to $2,373,448, or 8.34 percent by next June, is now expected to decrease to $1,648,276, a total fund balance of 5.65 percent.

The district is in its fifth year of an operating deficit, Meek said, due to state cuts in per pupil funding (more than $400 slashed per student in 2011), decline in student enrollment (more than 450 students lost since 2006) and an increase in the amount the district is mandated to contribute for employees retirement (currently a rate of about 25 percent).

Approximately 80 percent of the district's costs are salaries and benefits, and teachers are the largest bargaining group. Most groups have offered concessions over the last several years and even after offering concessions, school custodians lost their jobs when they were outsourced for savings.

Montgomery notes that the teachers have had wage and step freezes for the last two years. With "step increases," teachers receive automatic raises according to a salary schedule that correlates to the number of years a teacher has worked in the district. Up until the wage/step freeze, Meek said teachers received raises annually from their first to 11th years, then no increase until 17 years in the district, and then a raise on the 22nd and 27th anniversaries of district employment. The 2010-2011 school year was the last time teachers received step increases.

Meek acknowledges that teachers have made concessions toward the premium share of their medical costs, but said while they've had a wage and step freeze, a fund balance share that was negotiated in the last contract and resulted in check disbursements for the teachers, "in a way was a wage increase."

Despite their disagreements, Meek said the school board and administrators are appreciative of the work teachers and staffmembers do on a daily basis in the schools and classrooms.

"We appreciate that our teachers are professionals and remain committed to our students as the fact-finding process is initiated," she said.

Montgomery said positions are entrenched and contract negotiations can get heated, so he hopes the fact finding process will be helpful.

"This may be a better approach," he said. "From my perspective, I feel good about that. I feel our case is strong, and I'm sure they feel they have a strong case. Throughout the process, it will take quite a few months, but I think over time, we will continue to bargain, and should we reach a contract, we can withdraw on mediation and fact finding. We will continue to look for common ground."