School District Woes
The Alpine Union School District and the Alpine Teachers’ Association have been negotiating since October 2012; trying to find a way forward on preserving a quality education in the face of limited State funding and local declining student enrollment. Combined, these two factors produced an inability for the District to meet some of its State-mandated financial obligations. In essence, the District is nearly insolvent; not having enough revenues going into the next school year to pay its employment obligations; a shortage of about $1 million, and probably growing in subsequent years if State funding constraints remain and if student decline is not reversed.
The district had proposed a plan involving across-the-board salary cuts and benefit reductions for all of its employees, union and non-union alike; a plan that would result in all sharing in the pain, while conceptually keeping all employed. The Union has understandably been reluctant to accept that plan. A serious impasse has developed between the District and the Union, and the last District board meeting saw lots of emotion and some personal attacks coming out of that emotion.
The County Office of Education has stepped into the situation; twice warning the District, the Union and parents attending recent District board meetings, of the imperative that the budget impasse be resolved. The County also presented data confirming that expected revenue will not close the gap with projected expenses; and that cutting expenses is an imperative. The County acknowledged that some 80-90% of District expense is payroll and benefit related.
An Independent Factfinder has been engaged to determine the facts of the District budget impasse and to make recommendations. The draft report has been issued. These are its preliminary conclusions:
ü The District “has a history of declining enrollment and that this is a major issue not only for the budget of the District but for the District’s future survival. The District needs to look at ways to attract and retain students. The bargaining unit, ATA/CTA (sic-the Union) will need to come to the understanding that some sacrifices will have to be made until enrollment not only stabilizes, but begins to grow”.
ü The District “can meet its fiscal obligations (sic-for the immediate near term). However, it does not have sufficient funds to meet its 3% reserve requirements” mandated by the State.
ü The District may not have “sufficient funds to meet its obligations in 2014-2015 and beyond”.
The County has served notice to the District of its concern with pending insolvency and has provided a time line during which the District must submit a balanced budget. If that cannot be done, the District will basically be placed in the equivalent of a bankruptcy receivership – initially under partial County supervision. To me, such action would be harmful to education in Alpine, and could set the base of the community eventually losing control over the education of its children.
The Factfinder Report finds there are insufficient facts as to future revenues to make recommendations beyond the current 2013-2014 school year. The Report therefore recommends that for the current fiscal year there be a temporary reduction to the Union salary schedule, and a Cap on District-paid health and welfare premiums. Other non-union District employees have agreed to similar reductions; and the non-teachers union employees appear reluctantly willing to accept them too. Those actions, the Report finds, should provide the District with a cushion it needs to exceed the State-mandated minimum 3% reserve needs. The Report goes on to recommend an increase in targeted class sizes. That unfortunately implies reduction in teacher staffing in the 2014-2015 school year “in order to achieve the expenditure reductions that may be necessary above and beyond the reductions itemized”.
These are the pertinent Factfinder Report provisional recommendations:
1. Both parties (sic-District and Union) need to continue to engage in negotiations and mediation. While these recommendations help close the budget gap for the balance of this school year, the fiscal problems are likely to continue into future school years.
2. Implementation of a temporary 4.73% reduction to the current teacher salary schedule effective January 1, 2014 thru June 30th 2014.
3. Implementation of a $12,000 maximum contribution per eligible unit member toward the actual cost of health benefits. Premium costs that exceed the maximum District contribution shall now be paid individuals.
4. Class Size Targets: 28:1 school site average in grades K-3. District wide average in grades 4-5 of 31:1, and in grades 6-8 of 32:1.
These recommendations would fill the $1 million dollar gap; roughly 1/3rd by reductions in salaries & benefits and about 2/3rds from class room size increases. These are draconian by any reasonable measure. But draconian action unfortunately has remained “on the table” through months of negotiation, mediation and now through independent fact-finding. A worse outcome in my view would be the pending take-over of education in Alpine by outsiders within County and State bureaucracies if Alpine can’t solve its own fiscal problems. I understand that the final fact-finding report may entail appended comment by both parties.
As the County Office of Education representative clearly articulated at the last District board meeting, government overseers if imposed will be focused on “balancing the District’s budget” and while having perhaps a personal individual empathy to the idea that we in Alpine may have unique features, qualities and programs in our District worthy of preservation – that will be not on the overseers’ agenda!
The Factfinder Report lays-out an alternative path to immediate insolvency and a County/State take-over. While an unpleasant reality to us all, if adopted in principle by the District and Union, the Report’s recommendations buy the community time to reset personal views, to set-aside what have become emotion-based differences resulting in acrimonious public debate, and to establish a new start for cooperation and collaboration.
The Report finds that in lieu of any different facts, the miss-match of District revenues and expenses is going to flow into the next school year too; and that continued engagement by all parties is still needed. To me, all of us in Alpine have a roll in that engagement; whether District employees, philanthropic organizations, service organizations, PTAs, school site councils, parents and students. We need to move to a transparent, fact-based collective knowledge of the woes that face education in Alpine, and to develop, execute and support plans to maintain and enhance this District’s here-to-fore good education experience.
I was distressed when reading the Factfinder Report. The fact-finding was triggered by Alpiners not being able to effectively communicate between themselves in a reasoned, respectful manner based upon a common acceptance of facts. Worse, the fact-finding was conducted between attorneys for the District and a California Teachers Association union labor-relations person on behalf of the Union - none of the participants apparently live in Alpine and none presumably that have kids in our District.
Alpiners should get more involved. Turn-out to District board meetings is less than skimpy, unless motivated by emotion that in lieu of facts can drive discord. As a community we should return to a situation of mutual respect and leadership from all sides – all based around what is best for education. That must include addressing declining enrollment as well as improving test scores which softened over the past year.
Our financial problems are likely to extend into the next school year, and possibly beyond in lieu of some real return to high-growth economic prosperity in this State. I personally am more than skeptical of the school funding promises made by Sacramento politicians. In Alpine, Prop 30 approved a year ago has so far proven a bust to solving District funding woes.
We need to tackle our own education problems.
George Barnett, Alpine
“The formal issue of the Factfinder Report will include addenda from both parties, the District and the Union, recording their separate agreement and/or dissent to the Report’s reccomendations. Until those addenda are reviewed and clearly understood in the context of the recommendations, the issue remains unresolved and the District’s budget gap not settled.”