Teachers upset about spending priorites

Union in midst of negotiations but no talk of strike — yet

The Oak Harbor School District has announced that it has received an earlier than expected payment of federal Impact Aid, which it hopes to use toward a list of priorities, the top of which is to rectify a lower than safe fund balance.

However, the teachers’ union says that its members deserve increased pay or benefits, or at least a place on the priority list. As one union co-president put it, they are “chagrined” at being overlooked by the district.

“We were very disappointed to note that there was nothing on there for teachers,” said Peter Szalai, co-president of Oak Harbor Education Association.

The difference in opinion comes at the beginning of a week of contract negotiations between the two sides, both of which say they hope an agreement can be reached before the teacher’s current contract expires Aug. 31.

The teachers’ union is asking the district for better pay for substitute teachers, “equitable” class sizes, and help in paying for health insurance coverage. Particularly with the receipt of the Impact Aid payment, Szalai said the OHEA thinks the district can afford to meet the union’s contract request if it makes teachers a “priority.”

While OHEA leaders are taking a vocal stance on the issue, Szalai stopped short of saying the teachers are considering a strike if they don’t get what they want.

The OHEA has three options, Szalai said, if the two sides can’t agree during a negotiating session today. The first is to agree to continue discussions at later dates and work without a contract, while the second is to go to a contract ratification vote where members will either vote for or against the district’s offer. Lastly, union leaders could decide to organize member support for various “work stoppages or slowdowns,” Szalai said.

The issue heated up after Rick Schulte, superintendent of schools, released information late Friday stating that the district received an unexpected Impact Aid payment in the amount of $426,874, along with verbage from his July 18 budget review memo to the board outlining possible uses for any additional money the district receives beyond that projected in the recently adopted budget.

While district officials keep track of the amount of Impact Aid due to the school district, the Department of Education offered no timeline for disbursing those payments. The electronic transfer was unexpected at this time.

The additional money came from the Department of Education’s refiguring of the number of students living on military property, said Pam Ross, business director for Oak Harbor School District. The district is paid a certain dollar amount for students of federal employees who live in civilian housing, and a higher rate for students who live in military family housing. Because of the remodeling and rebuilding of military family housing in Oak Harbor in recent years, more than the usual number of students’ families were required to live in civilian housing. The Department of Education corrected a deficiency in funding by switching over 170 students, on paper, from civilian to military housing.

Ross said the payment decreases her concern over the fund balance, which in the recently adopted budget had been projected to fall to $685,000 by the end of the budget year. Bringing the district’s general fund ending balance up to $1.2 million is important for two reasons, Ross said.

The first reason is cash flow. School districts receive monthly payments from the state. In three months out of the year, the payments are a lower percentage of the annual funding than in the other nine months. In those three months, the district would have trouble paying bills and its $2 million monthly payroll if the fund balance gets too low.

The second reason for maintaining a target fund balance of $1.2 million, Ross said, is that state auditors noticed the fund balance has been too low and commented that a fund balance should be between 3 and 5 percent of the annual budget.

Kathy Jones, school board president, expressed relief at the unexpected receipt of the funding, saying that the money was much needed to stabilize the district’s financial footing over the coming school year, and to perhaps restore student-related expenditures, such as new science textbooks, which had to be cut from this year’s budget.

Jones said she “can’t believe” that science teachers who have worked two years on a committee to select the new textbooks would rather have pay and benefits raises for themselves over providing new textbooks for kids.

Beyond that, however, Jones refused to comment on Szalai’s statements, saying that such contract negotiations are private, by law.

“I’m not going to comment on that,” Jones said, “because we’re in negotiations with OHEA.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Christine Smith at csmith@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611