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District unveils financial plan

Tanya Canino, Sun News Service

A plan to bring the school district back to fiscal health was adopted Tuesday, but it is the teachers and employees who will have the ultimate say over whether it is fully implemented.

“If it is not passed by the bargaining units, we will go back to the table,” said Kellea Miller, one of two high school students who helped the 33-member Fiscal Review Committee come up with a three-year business plan during a 13-hour meeting Nov. 30.

The Tahoe-Truckee Unified School District Board of Trustees Tuesday adopted a recommendation by the Fiscal Review Committee that will address a $1.2 million shortfall in the school district’s finances.

“We had to keep the cuts as far away as possible from the students,” said Vince Deveney, who represented the California Schools Employees Association, the non-certificated employees. Deveney is the son of the former superintendent, who retired last summer.

The three-year plan would address the deficit and give the school district its required 3 percent reserve by the end of the 2000-2001 school year, according to Reina Markheim, president of the teachers’ organization.

“We’re all part of the solutions,” she said, adding that the committee tried to keep the impacts equitable between staff, schools, parents, district operations and education organizations.

Cuts outlined

The plan includes cuts at each school, reallocation of some Measure S parcel tax funds, a community fund-raising effort by the Excellence in Education Foundation, increased attendance by students, reductions in athletic budgets, elimination of a districtwide maintenance officer and a resource officer at Tahoe Truckee High School and reallocation of some district funds.

One of the key elements is a 1 percent reduction in teachers’ and employees’ Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) raises in 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 for a savings of $400,000 – one-third of the projected deficit.

But some teachers at the meeting pointed out that the plan put too much of a burden on teachers by asking them to give up a portion of their COLA.

“I don’t see the equal share. It’s not equal at all,” said Ed Parada, a teacher at North Tahoe High School.

Peggy Heidelberger-Smith, a NTHS teacher, also said she will be asked to endure the hardships as a teacher dealing with cuts at her school and paying for supplies from her own money, as a parent of a student athlete, as a community member being asked for a donation and as an employee losing part of her promised pay.

“For the pieces of the pie, there are quite a few things that overlap,” she said.

She said the teacher contracts agreed upon last June were the result of a year and a half of negotiations, as well as an agreement by the teachers to hold off on a salary increase in order to help get the Measure S parcel tax passed by voters in March 1996.

Jan Ganong, co-chair of the Measure S Citizens Review Committee, said teachers should consider the alternative.

“If this is not reached, programs would have to be cut and if programs are cut, staff is cut and that’s really the only option. If programs and staff are cut, then this community will not support Measure S and then more programs and staff are cut. I see ourselves in a downward trend,” Ganong said.

She said the teachers may have held off on a salary increase for Measure S, but they benefited from the parcel tax because it pays for academic programs, increased electives and instructional supplies at the schools.

Cindy Gustafson, of the Excellence in Education Foundation, said that teachers are not the only ones in the community whose salaries do not compare to the state average.

“Nobody denies that we don’t pay our teachers enough. Every single one of us in this community makes less than salary surveys show throughout the state,” she said.

Yet community members, despite their lower salaries, continue to donate and give to the schools, Gustafson said.

Fiscal Review Committee member Roger Kahn, a Tahoe City businessman, said that employee salaries and benefits are 82 percent of the school district’s budget. With such a share of the budget, the employees must be a part of the fiscal solution.

Kahn noted that businesses use the Consumer Price Index as a way to keep employees’ salaries on par with inflation; a COLA is actually more than the cost of inflation.

“The COLA is given from the state. It’s not just for salaries; it’s also to help us with these other costs,” said TTUSD Trustee Karen Van Epps.

One audience member said that the top 12 district administration positions nearly equal $1 million and that administration needs to be cut.

“I don’t feel that the upper echelon was studied,” Heidelberger Smith added.

The district’s administration has not been specifically studied because the TTUSD actually has less administrative positions than other medium-sized districts its size, Gemma said.

“I’m happy to go ahead and conduct such a study,” Gemma said.

TTUSD trustee Suzanne Prouty noted that the unexpected declining enrollment, along with last year’s “justified” salary increases and other factors, have put the school district headed for bankruptcy if it doesn’t do something.

Gemma called for everyone to work together.

“This is not an effort to try to compete or to see who might win or who might lose. It is an effort to try to solve a problem in a way that we might be proud,” said Gemma. “I believe that the solution that this committee came up with is truly a win-win. Everyone should know that the power is with the employee groups. The employee groups from my estimation, won the salary battle, the salary competition from last time. They are completely in power I would hope they would see the benefits all of us will reap by joining together.”

A letter will be sent to all employees inviting them to a meeting at 5 p.m. Dec. 14 at the North Tahoe Community Conference Center in Kings Beach to explain the business plan. In mid-January, the employees will meet with their particular bargaining group to vote on whether to agree to the 1 percent reduction in the COLA. The COLA is part of their contract which cannot be changed without their consent.

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