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Tue, Jan. 28

Board, teachers wrangle over raises

At the first work session for next year's budget, Business Manager Lee Metheny warned the School Board of a lean year ahead, while teachers made a plea to set raises at the start of the process rather than at the end.

"We don't know what the state will tell us," Metheny said. "But just to maintain the status quo will take a 45-cent increase in the property tax rate. To maintain the programs that we have, there's not a lot of wiggle room."

Without an approved state budget, the district is working with estimates adjusted from last year. They expect to raise $3.7 million - around $100,000 less than last year due to a combination of factors. It is $133,000 less than needed to keep everything level.

These include a 1-percent drop in property values and the expectation that the state will make considerable cuts in education to ease its budget crisis. Gains from a proposed 2-percent increase in state education aid are questionable, Metheny said.

"If we get the 2 percent, I'm guessing they're going to pull it out from somewhere else," he said.

"I think it would be, in my opinion, foolish to assume we're going to have more money than we've had in 07-08," said Board member Chuck Wahler.

The district has also lost about $45,000 in forest fees with no expectation of renewed legislation in a lame duck year, and impact aid has dropped by $106,000, from $803,000 to $697,000. Funds of $26,000 for the culinary arts/hospitality vocational program may also decrease as the county shifts its priorities to centralized programs in Flagstaff.

At the same time expenses will go up nearly 12 percent, boosted in part by a 65 percent hike in vehicle fuel and 28 percent increase in propane. The district expects to spend about $22,000 more than budgeted this year and has left room for another 12-percent increase over the next year.

"Nobody seems to think we're going to ever get back to those prices so we're stuck with some pretty high prices," he said, adding that unless mileage reimbursement increases to match fuel prices, they can expect to break even on transportation rather than realizing a surplus.

"We're hoping for the mileage rate to be able to come up to compensate for fuel price. If not, we're not going to be making money on transportation as we've done in past years. We'll be doing good just to hold our own," he said.

Other increases are projected for postage, which will rise 55 percent or $2,600 due to election mailings; and training, which has risen 66 percent. The district had budgeted $9,000 this year and spent $14,258. Next year, $15,000 is budgeted.

Though dental insurance rates have been set at this year's level of $37 per month per employee,

Metheny said they are still waiting for a quote on health insurance, which will almost certainly increase. Last year, the rate dropped from $314 to $305 per employee per month.

"Our expense was so low, they said you guys are a good client so you get a break, so we actually got a decrease," he said, but this year and end of last year, there was some serious illness, which, Metheny said, "kicks the premium up."

The district pays insurance premiums as well as retirement. This year, they increased that cost to pay benefits for employees working three-quarter time.

"We hadn't done that in the past," said Metheny.

They also budged in an extra $198,000 in salaries from rent payments to cover the cost of painting the Mohave units.

Metheny said that tby using the maintenance staff, they are saving money.

That's more than we normally spend in a year, but I understand we've never painted the outside of the Mohave units since they were constructive so Andrew's kind of antsy to do some preventive maintenance there," he said.

Outlay for salaries would be around $2.3 million, plus an additional $35,211 if teachers get a 2-percent raise. There is also an additional $112,000 in so-called Proposition 301 money - funds used to reward teachers for training, attendance and performance.

For personnel they expect to go from one kindergarten teacher to two, three first grade teachers to one and one second grade teacher to two.

"Right now, it looks like based on what I understand from the students coming in from Kaibab Learning Center, we're not going to get away with one kindergarten teacher unless we have 40 kids in that class," Metheny said.

They will also have to replace school librarian Nancy Green and Special Education Coordinator Debi Roman, as neither will return next year.

Because Roman was a contract hire without benefits, Metheny was not optimistic that they could find a new director for the same salary.

"I think we'll be lucky to recruit anyone who's qualified to be a SPED coordinator for $40,000. Even paying a salary of $40,000 they're probably going to want the benefits and everything else on top of that," he said. "I can see that number going up."

With a best-case scenario, based on hiring a SPED director at $40,000 and with no staffing surprises, the draft budget shows about $34,000 left over.

With an eye toward that money as well as the 2 percent increase expected from the state, teacher Jason Evans offered a proposal on behalf of staff for a 4 percent increase, at a cost to the district of $82,000. They also proposed forgoing a 10 percent increase in housing costs and to cut two contractually-required, unpaid work days.

"I'd really encourage you to notice that this school - we're not doing an adequate job. I think we're doing a great job," Evans said, asking that the Board consider raises first, rather than "find it for teachers at the end."

"We unfortunately have to go through this every year and I would not disagree with anything that you're saying," said Wahler. "But the bottom line for me is the very painful reality that to do what you're proposing means we've got to find $133,000. I would invite you to roll up your sleeves and help me find that money because I'd be thrilled to be able to do it. But we need to find it."

Board President Clarinda Vail said that it wasn't a matter higher and lower priorities.

"It's not that one isn't more important than the other but because you have to keep the whole ship afloat, you have to look at all of those expense equally," she said.

Metheny noted that extra money has gone toward permanent increases in base salary including a 4.7 percent raise last year that was twice the state average, that teachers get paid $250 a day for in-service training and that the district picks up the entire cost for health and dental.

"When we've had excess cash we didn't just have a lot of pizza parties," he said.

Teacher Cynthia Granberg said that some of that was offset by the fact that step increases are tied to courses that teachers pay for themselves, not for years of service.

"You have to earn the credits to advance. It does encourage training but there's outlay there," she said. "I think that needs to be considered. With just a 2 percent increase and housing going up, it's like robbing Peter to pay Paul."

"If I was where you are I would feel very frustrated that the last thing talked about is salaries," said Wahler. "But if it was the first thing we were talking about, we'd still be looking for $133,000 to accomplish the goal."

Board member Suzette Streit suggested that with the financial squeeze, it might be time to make some tough choices.

"It might be good if we maybe made a commitment to try and give to our staff," she said. "It's going to be a rough couple of years, it sounds like, and maybe we need to cut some things. I think it should be a priority paying our staff just like we make it a priority to pay our bills."

Evans suggested forming a committee to look into ways to cut energy costs, an initiative that Superintendent Sheila Breen said was tried last year without much success.

While Vail said they preferred a committee appointed by the administration rather than by the board, she offered to serve on it.

Dean of Students Becky Crumbo recommended setting a percentage goal "so that we all work toward a shared vision."

Evans asked if the district could offer contracts with contingencies based on actual funding - something they won't know until after the May 15 deadline. Breen said that it was possible and had been done in the past.

The next budget work session will be on Tuesday, April 8, from 4-5:30 p.m. at the school library.

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