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School district employees come riding to the rescue

TANYA CANINO

School district employees could be the “calvary coming to save the fort” if they agree to a plan to bring the district out of a fiscal crisis, but many teachers see it as being “stuck in a rock and a hard place.”

A financial plan passed Dec. 8 by the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District Board of Trustees to generate $1.2 million over three years is dependent on district employees and teachers giving up a portion of a promised raise in 1999-2000. If the employees vote to change their contracts and give up 1 percent of the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) in 1999-2000, the district will receive $200,000.

“If the employees vote in favor of this recommendation, it will be like the calvary coming to save the fort,” said TTUSD Superintendent Pat Gemma. “The community needs the employees to do this.”

The teachers and employees, however, have heard the call of the fort before.

“In years past, they’ve asked us to help solve the money problems,” said Mike Merriman, the vice-president of the teacher’s union, the Truckee-Tahoe Education Association.

The recurring financial problems at TTUSD bother the employees who have been asked to forgo raises in the past, said Deborah Chase, president of the California Schools Employees Association which represents classified employees such as custodians, maintenance workers, secretaries, bus drivers, etc.

“People overall understand there is a crisis. We’re all going to sacrifice to help the school district, but we need our assurances that it won’t be a recurring problem,” Chase said.

The classified employees will meet Jan. 13 to discuss the issue, while the teachers’ union will meet in mid- to late-January.

“The teachers are looking for any way we can to fix this thing without hurting the children,” Merriman said.

He said the teachers’ union will likely offer some alternatives to the school district to consider instead of the 1 percent reduction of the COLA.

“There are some interesting ideas out there,” he said.

The business plan of the Fiscal Review Committee – a group of 33 community members, school district personnel, teachers, students and education organizations – includes cuts at each school in instructional supplies and other items, reallocation of Measure S parcel tax funds, a community fund-raising effort by the Excellence in Education Foundation, increased attendance by students, reduction in athletic budgets, elimination of a districtwide maintenance worker, elimination of school funding for a resource officer at Tahoe-Truckee High School, reallocation of some district funds and the 1 percent reduction in teachers’ and employees’ COLA raise in 1999-2000.

All of the business plan can be enacted through the school board and private educational groups, except the teachers’ and employees’ COLA reduction. This must be voted upon by their respective unions. If they do not vote for the reduction, the Fiscal Review Committee will have to go back to the drawing table.

With the community’s eyes upon them, Merriman says the teachers feel like they’re “stuck in a rock and a hard place.”

“We’re trying to keep community support for the district and for us,” he said. “I know the community looks at us as getting a big, fat 8 percent raise. They’ll look at us as greedy if we turn this down.”

However, Merriman explained that teachers did not have raises for two or three years and last May’s contract agreement of an 8 percent raise only brought the teachers on par with other districts. He said teachers who have been in the district for many years earn more than the average, but beginning and middle teachers on the salary scale still earn less than average.

“Our board bit the bullet and gave them a huge salary increase. The district made the employees the priority,” Gemma said. “I don’t think you’ll find a district in the state that gave 8 percent this year.”

He said that the annual COLA is money the state gives to school districts to operate programs and give salary raises. It helps to pay for the automatic raises that teachers receive on the “step and column” salary schedule, which gives teachers raises according to the number of years they have worked and the number of educational credits they have earned. Any raises from the COLAs are in addition to the step and column salary increases.

When the school board agreed to give the teachers an 8 percent raise and next year’s entire COLA, it was with the understanding that class sizes would increase and cuts would have to be made, Gemma said.

“We want to give some kind of raise above step and column, but it can’t be to the level of the COLA without cutting programs,” Gemma said.

However, the district would have been able to bear the teacher raises if there had not been declining enrollment and less money from the state.

Last year’s COLA from the state was 3.95 percent of the approximate $18.6 million the district received for per pupil attendance. The district will not know the 1999-2000 COLA until January, which will then be revised again in May and August.

The average teacher salary at TTUSD is $42,000 after the 8 percent raise, Gemma said. While the 1 percent COLA reduction could be less than $500 for the average teacher salary, Merriman says over a 20-year career it could translate into $10,000.

Gemma cautions the teachers that the school district’s fiscal health and ability to maintain an $800,000 reserve will affect how much the district can pay the teachers in future contracts.

He also said if the district discovers that its ending balance in 1999-2000 is greater than the amount needed for its reserve, some of that money could go back to the teachers.

“We would like to have something like that in writing,” noted Merriman.

With school board approval, Gemma said he would sign any document like that.

Before the teachers and employees decide upon the change in their contract, there will be a lot to evaluate, Merriman said.

If the school district has to delete programs, then teachers could be cut. Also, the teachers’ working conditions are dependent on the school district’s finances. Community support for school bonds and parcel taxes also affect teacher working conditions and need to be carefully considered, he said.

“It’s a big rock,” Merriman said.

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