August 19, 2002
Still time for teachers, district to negotiate settlement
by Jeanette Knutson
Does the Northshore School District have the money to address teachers' contract issues? Northshore Education Association (NSEA) Vice President and bargaining team member Diane Puckett thinks they do.
"We've done so many budget studies," said Puckett, "both the WEA (Washington Education Association) and ourselves (the NSEA). We see money being spent in ways that don't benefit the frontline: the classrooms, the teachers. We see money spent on administrative positions."
Not all of the teachers' issues, however, are money-related.
"Teachers don't feel they're consulted or respected," said Puckett. "There is a basic distrust of decision-making in the district. We truly believe what we're asking for will benefit the students. Our motives are not self-serving. We are trying to maintain the quality of education in Northshore School District," she said.
Puckett said, "I'm hopeful we can avoid a strike, but I'm not encouraged that we can."
NSEA President Aaron Feik said, "Right now we're going to push for a one-year contract."
Normally contracts run for two to three years.
"Listen," said Feik, "we have no intention of bankrupting the district. We all recognize that it's tough times."
Feik said he thinks the district is spending a lot of money managing the system, on communications, on assessment, on software to handle vendor/staff payments and track grades and attendance. He questions whether the district is spending its resources in the right places.
"We want to thank the community for their support over the years," said Feik, "and for the kind of kids they send to school.
"The teachers are anxious to get back with the kids. But they need to feel that they're being listened to by this administration. Look, we just want the money coming into the district to go to the classrooms ... where the kids are," he said.
Pamela Steele, district spokeswoman, said "Our negotiating team is committed to reaching a settlement so that school can open on time. They are working hard to make that happen."
A point of contention in contract discussions is the district's reserve funds, the funds it has left over after everything has been paid. The district calls these funds the General Fund "fund balance." According to Steele, the district expects to have between $8 and $8.5 million in the fund balance when its fiscal year closes Aug. 31.
"If we had a fund balance of $8 - $8.5 million, that isn't even enough to fund payroll for one month," said Steele.
Payroll is slightly less than $10 million a month.
Steele said School Board policy requires an ending fund balance of 2 to 4 percent of the total budget that is not reserved for other purposes. This amounts to approximately $5.9 million. The better part of what's left over after the Board-required fund balance ($8-8.5 million minus $5.9 million), according to the district, is already earmarked for specific uses: insurance, inventory, professional development.
But the NSEA would like to see some of that fund balance go to the teachers.
"Dip a little into the reserve," said Feik. "Let's make an effort that shows you really care about the teachers."
The district says the fund balance is being used within reason. It is reluctant to deplete funds particularly since revenues may continue to decline, and the district will be unable to replenish these funds.
"The fund balance is a lot like a GPA (grade point average)," said Steele. "It goes down a whole heck of a lot faster than it goes up."
If negotiations stall and a strike should occur, the district will not open school using substitute teachers. Instructional time lost will have to be made up. All activities except for high school sports will be curtailed. Activities, intramural and junior high sports will resume when school opens.
To keep parents informed, the district will set up a special hotline with a prerecorded message, a live phone bank and a special e-mail address.
The district and the teachers' union have three all-day bargaining sessions scheduled for Aug. 20, 21 and 22.
"We remain cautiously optimistic," said Steele.