Teachers question cost of stadium

Questions about how the new high school stadium is being funded have created some odd political bedfellows in Oak Harbor.

Stopping short of a formal endorsement, the Oak Harbor Education Association is supporting long-time school district critic and current school board candidate Bill Burnett — at least through the primary election.

Peter Szalai, teachers’ union president, said even though Burnett’s positions are often wrong in his view, Burnett’s pointed questions about school district finances may be needed.

“There is an issue of how the school district spends money,” Szalai said. “I think that’s a legitimate topic.”

It’s been a tough year financially for the school district. Teaching positions were cut and support staff laid off to help resolve a budget shortfall; Clover Valley Elementary School was closed as a cost-saving measure; and the stadium came in over budget, forcing officials to make cuts and dig into other funding sources to ensure there’s enough money to pay for the project.

In regards to the stadium, the teachers’ union wants a concise accounting showing where the school district found the money to pay for it. Originally budgeted at around $7 million, the cost has escalated to $9.5 million.

They want that information as the union prepares to negotiate a new three-year contract. Negotiations for the contract begin next spring and Szalai said compensation and benefits will be huge issues.

“I don’t think the superintendent or the board has explained that very well,” Szalai said of how the school district paid for the stadium.

He spoke at a recent school board meeting demanding a clear accounting of how public dollars have been spent. He questioned whether money diverted to the stadium could have been better used elsewhere.

Superintendent Rick Schulte, obviously frustrated by Szalai’s comments, said the school district has made that information readily available on its Web site,

“This is all part of the groundwork for negotiating an increase in teacher pay,” Schulte said of Szalai’s comments. He said that Szalai has no excuse for not knowing about the information the school district published on its Web site.

The price tag for the stadium increased primarily due to inflation for construction materials, a problem that has plagued projects around the region.

To resolve the funding shortfall, the school board made approximately $400,000 worth of cuts and then looked at other funding sources to make up the difference.

The $9.5 million stadium is being funded by a $6.5 million bond that voters approved in 2005. In addition to the bond money, the school district received approximately $500,000 from the Oak Harbor Rotary Club. For the remainder of the cost, $240,000 will come from bond investment earnings, and then officials will divert money received in supplemental Impact Aid provided by the Department of Defense.

The school district receives approximately $320,000 a year in Department of Defense funding and officials estimate approximately $1 million is needed to pay for the remainder of the stadium. The district has traditionally used the supplemental Impact Aid to fund capital projects within the school district, but using it for the new stadium means it won’t be available elsewhere.

The school district is also transferring $1.15 million from the high school renovation project to the stadium project. But Schulte said that money will go toward drainage and road improvements that are more associated with the stadium project than the remodel. He said it is better to do those parts of the project now because it will minimize disruptions, and it’s cheaper than waiting for the remodel to begin.

The stadium project no longer includes renovating the practice athletic fields, even though it was advertised in the original bond proposal that voters approved in 2005. That part of the project was put on hold. It would cost between $750,000 and $1 million to upgrade those fields and officials haven’t yet found a way to pay for it.

Union and school officials begin negotiating a new three-year contract in April.

Szalai said the union will focus on making teacher compensation closer to similar-sized school districts in the state. He said that, with the recent budget cuts, the teachers are worried that class size will increase and that the upcoming high school project will be diminished due to continued inflation in construction costs.

As for union support for Burnett, Szalai described Burnett’s campaign issue of providing levy dollars to allow families to hire private tutors as an idea that is “dead on arrival.” He also realizes that, if he’s elected, Burnett would have differences with the school district’s teachers.

Despite those differences, Szalai said that people like Burnett provide a characteristic that is needed on the school board because they question the administration’s policies. Burnett was against both the stadium bond and high school remodel bond due to financial concerns.

As for a possible formal endorsement for Burnett, Szalai said the winners of the Aug. 21 primary election, which pits Burnett against David Sherman and Frank Pulu, will go before the union council in September and the council will decide which candidate to endorse.

In his six-and-a-half years as teachers union president, Szalai said it has handed out endorsements only once. That was in 2005 when the board endorsed Gary Wallin and Corey Johnson. Szalai said that union only makes endorsements in races that won’t divide the membership.

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