By MATT CLARK
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
Gone are student field trips. Dismissed are dozens of administrators, bus drivers and secretaries. Reduced are funds for high school athletic events, musical instrument repair and marching band uniforms.
But the Lee County school district still needs to cut $14.6 million from its budget, and that money looks to come right from the salaries, raises or health insurance benefits of workers with the county´s largest employer.
Members of the Teachers Association of Lee County and the Support Personnel Association of Lee County - two union-affiliated groups representing about 9,500 workers - met with district officials Monday in their first contract bargaining session following the passage of the state´s budget last week.
That budget resulted in a $7 million funding increase for the school district, far short of the $35.7 million increase in salary, fuel and utility expenses the district expects for the next year. The result is a $29 million hole, half of which the district filled over the past two months by cutting dozens of programs, projects and nearly 160 positions, many of them directorships.
District Budget Director Ami Desamours said the remainder will come from the bargaining table.
“We have done as much cutting as we can,” Desamours said.
The situation compounds itself by the fact that the state may not have enough money to cover the cost of the budget it passed. District Chief Business Officer Lee Legutko said last week that the state put off estimating its revenue, and will likely have to make cuts midway through next year, as it did this year.
Also complicating the bargaining is an $8 million increase in health insurance costs.
Support Personnel Association President Bob Rushlow said it´s the worst situation he has seen in years.
“I´ve been in negotiations for many, many years, but this has got to be some of the toughest negotiations that I have ever experienced,” Rushlow said after the four-hour meeting´s completion. “And it´s not over yet.”
Within the coming weeks, the groups hope to eventually reach an agreement with the district. The meetings held up to this point have allowed for brainstorming various options.
One suggestion placed on the table was to cut the employees´ $20 million benefit package, which includes funding for raises and health benefits, by $14.6 million and let the remaining $5.4 million be distributed how the employee associations wished.
Those in the meetings have also suggested cuts in salary, including cutting pay for holidays the district´s employees do not work.
“Any decision we´re going to make is going to be unpopular,” Rushlow said. “It´s a shame that the Legislature and the governor won´t tap into the renegade fund for this budget. The legislators won´t step up to the plate on this one. I don´t think they realize this is impacting kids lives and their futures.”
At several points, the discussion turned to the cuts that have already been made and how the district would operate without those employees and programs.
“I do want to assure you that sitting on that budget committee this year was probably one of the most frustrating things I have ever done,” District Human Resources Director Greg Adkins said. “I sat with the chiefs this morning and the groups started talking about the services that we don´t even know how we are going to provide.”
Rushlow said many of his employees are concerned with the road from here. The district expects the same budget situation to repeat itself for the next two years, likely resulting in an end to anything that isn´t nailed down by state law, including athletics, arts and music programs.
“Obviously, if you are going to cut personnel, you are going to cut services,” Rushlow said. “Who is going to pick up that extra work when you cut the personnel? What are the consequences if they don´t get it done? There is a lot of fear out there, a tremendous amount of fear out there.”
© Naples News