By LINDA LOBECK
IRON MOUNTAIN - Settling a contract with its employees is one of the concerns expressed by the Iron Mountain School Board of Education at Monday's meeting, along with continuing to address the district's deficit status with the state.
Parents, students, teachers, and Michigan Education Association officials all crowded into the school's media center to express their concerns to the board about the lack of a contract with the teachers and where they felt reductions could be made in the budget.
Introduced at the meeting was the plan to go Fact Finding as a way of coming to an agreement on the contracts.
A PowerPoint presentation led by Board President Jeff Michaud showed that the MEA's website stated that the school district received $554,816 less in school funding in 2011-12 from the 2010-11 school year.
In 2012-13, they had $390,901 less in aid and $294,057 less in state funding for 2013-14. It is estimated that there will be another reduction of $130,805 in 2014-15 for a total loss of $1,370,579 over the four year period.
The presentation also showed slides on how a deficit budget occurred due to a loss of revenues, which goes hand-in-hand with declining enrollments.
"Declining enrollment and reductions in state aid have outpaced cost reduction efforts. And as we have chased revenue down with cost reductions, we have expended our savings (fund balance) to maintain programs and operations," Michaud said.
Another question that people have had in this process, he added, is why the district must resolve the deficit in two years. He noted that this is directly related to the fact that school district receives money from the state and the law states that they cannot adopt or operate under a deficit budget.
Resolving the deficit in two years is also part of the law and they must submit to the Department of Education a plan to eliminate the deficit "not later than the end of the second school fiscal year after the deficit was incurred or the budget protecting a deficit was adopted."
Another question people have had is why the school district decided to resolve the deficit in the first year. "We expect a significant reduction in student count when the current large junior class graduates in 2015," Michaud said.
The current student count is 888 with 875 anticipated next year and 829 by 2015-16, according to the presentation.
The union has presented information from the MEA on how to reduce spending in purchased services and operations and maintenance.
Michaud said that Craig Culver of the MEA analyzed district spending in 2011-12 using data compared to similar districts with the results showing the opportunity to reduce operating and maintenance expenses by $250,000 and purchased services by $100,000.
"The district investigated our spending in these areas and found relative to the 2011-12 school year, we have reduced the budget for 2013-14 by $300,000 in operations and maintenance and other purchased services by an additional $75,000," he said.
"Further initiatives to reduce these expenses by approximately $37,000, excluding wages and services, are included in the deficit elimination plan."
Michaud added that Fact Finding includes using a neutral third party that is jointly selected by the two unions (teachers and support staff) and administration and this will be Stewart Israel. A hearing to review information provided by the administration and unions is scheduled for April 22.
The result will be to provide a non-binding recommendation to the district to resolve contract disputes and take into consideration the financial condition of the district. An anticipated recommendation would be in early June and negotiations must continue for an additional 60 calendar days after the recommendation is received.
"If we are unable to reach agreement, the district may impose a contract. It is our sincere hope the process will help us move negotiations with both unions forward towards a resolution," Michaud said.
The impact of the deficit elimination plan was also questioned as to how it would affect classroom programs and operations going forward.
Michaud noted in the presentation that there would be no section decreases in the elementary, they would reinstate art at East Elementary School for grades 4-6, maintain access to music programs, reduce the number of ceramics classes from two to one section, possible reduction in the number of athletic coaches that would be adjusted for the number of participants in that sport, and they may not offer some freshmen sports, which would continue to be evaluated based on student interest.
"As we work our way through the Fact Finding process, we ask that you support us in maintaining a positive and friendly environment in our schools and in the community. Students in the community have the right to attend their school of choice. Creating a positive impression of our school is imperative to retaining students and encouraging additional students to choose Iron Mountain," Michaud said.
The school district, noted Supt. Tom Jayne, is not alone in this situation - other districts across the state from Farmington to Menominee and Marquette all are struggling with less money from state funding.
Mary Lieberman, an MEA official from Petoskey, addressed the board during public comment time on the impact the unsettled contract has had on the community. She asked the board what the estimated and actual fund balances were for the past five years, whether the district had examined the potential cost for Fact Finding and whether that was the best use of district money, and what the district has spent on legal fees through this process.
She suggested that the board look at settling the contract before going to go to Fact Finding.
"If you don't settle before that, you are not showing respect for your staff. They are proud of their school," Lieberman said. "You need to show respect and work together because you have a lot to be proud of here."
Donna Ward, a 25 year veteran teacher with the school, noted that the teachers do everything in their power to educate their students so they can excel academically. She added that the teachers have been working without a contract for 618 days, and spend countless hours beyond what is expected of them.
"The large class sizes haven't stopped us from doing this, but we need to focus on the future. We can increase revenue by keeping our current students and attracting more. We have an experienced staff that can do this. It breaks my heart to hear students are leaving for other districts when our first priority is our students. Please settle a fair contract for everyone so we can get back to promoting Iron Mountain as a district where all children can succeed," Ward said.
Another 25 year teacher in the district, Maria Basanese-Hill noted that she has worked under four different superintendents and four different principals and has never spoken up at a meeting before. "But now it's gotten personal - the decisions you are making for the district are hurting my family, who rely on my salary. Teaching is not a hobby it's how we provide for our families," she said.
Basanese-Hill also talked about the time she and the other teachers took time to pack up their rooms to be moved to different buildings this summer with no compensation or pay.
She also noted that the parents were not happy with the larger class sizes and they told the administration that they were planning to pull their kids last summer. "The result was a huge loss of revenue to the school district. You can't pin the financial loss because of this on our families. We are not the reason all the kids left."
Linda Lobeck's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org