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Finance Oversight Committee Worries District Can’t Afford Agreement with Teacher’s Union

By Jorge Casuso

November 15 – School District officials are scrambling to come up with $7 million over the next three years to pay for a tentative agreement with the teacher’s union that was kept from the public eye for nearly a month, the Finance Oversight Committee was told Tuesday.

The 5 percent salary raise -- which would all but deplete the district’s nearly $7.3 million in reserves -- has caused a rift between Superintendent Dianne Talarico and Chief Business Official Winston Braham, according to a document released shortly before the meeting.

While Talarico signed the document certifying the District’s ability to meet the costs of the agreement submitted to the County Office of Education on October 18, Braham put a check mark next to the words, “I am unable to certify.”

“The absence of one or both of the signatures should serve as a ‘red flag’ to the district’s governing board,” according to the certification form.

Member’s of District’s Finance Oversight Committee expressed their deep concern that the agreement had been reached without a way of paying for it and that it had been made public just two days before the School Board is set to discuss the issue Thursday night.

“This raises very significant questions that the district can meet the agreement that has been reached,” said Committee Chair Paul Silvern. “Other than some general suggestions, a plan does not currently exist.

“The report has not been made available to the finance committee or the public,” he added.

“We’re putting forward an agreement with the teachers we can’t afford,” said Cynthia Torres, a committee member. “This does not meet my standard for excellent financial management. We want to see our business official’s support.”

At the committee meeting, Braham handed out a “treatment” for a plan the district must submit to County education officials by December 15 outlining how the salary raise would be paid for.

The plan includes everything from cutting back on the purchase of books and supplies and changing the teachers’ health care plans to revamping bus routes and freezing all hiring.

The district can also petition the State to allow it to hold 1.5 percent, instead of the mandated 3 percent, of its operating budget in reserves for “economic uncertainties.”

“These are intended to stimulate our thinking,” Braham said. “This is such a scale of increase that the amount of revenue it will take to fund it is not something you can cobble together.”

Braham said the board should hire an outside financial expert to conduct a cost analysis of the savings to boost the county’s confidence that the salary raises can be paid for.

Superintendent Talarico said she had not released a copy of the agreement to the committee or the public, because the board is not set to vote on it Thursday night. But she acknowledged it was “probably not” a good decision.

“I was not trying to hide anything,” Talarico said.

The pay raise, she said, is necessary in order to keep the best teachers in a district where housing costs are among the most expensive in the region.

“We live in a competitive world, and our district has some incredible people who are getting phenomenal response,” Talarico said. “The classroom is where the rubber meets the road.

“What we are doing for our teachers is paramount,” she said. “We’ve got to have the highest qualified workforce… Our teachers deserve it. I think it’s competitive. I don’t think things are as bleak as we believe them to be at this time.”

Talarico said a top County official had given her his guarantee that the plan outlining how the raises would be paid for would be “qualified” by the Office of Education if an outside financial expert signs off on it.

“It’s guaranteed,” she said. The plan, she said, would be made public by December 5.

Harry Keiley, president of the Santa Monica Malibu Teachers Association, said the 5 percent raise seems to mirror, if not fall below, salary hikes being given by other area districts. Although the teachers are expected to ratify the agreement, they are making concessions.

“The voting has begun, the ballots are coming into our office on a daily basis and we anticipate all the votes will be in” before Thursday’s School Board meeting, Keiley said.

“My problem is to make sure the numbers come in 50 plus 1, and they may not,” said Keiley, who estimates 70 percent of the votes are in. “They may want more.”

Although the committee discussed recommending that the parties go back to the bargaining table, in the end, most of the members agreed it was too late to start over.

“The damage that it would do to morale to slow down or reverse the process would be enormous,” said Patricia Hoffman, a committee member and former president of the School Board.

But some who attended Tuesday night’s meeting worried the flawed process would undermine public confidence in the district’s ability to manage its finances and jeopardize its chances to win voter support for future bonds and parcel taxes.

“I am very concerned this latest incident will undermine public confidence in the financial management of the district,” said Chris Harding, a land use attorney and former member of the committee. “There’s supposed to be much more public involvement.

“The secrecy of this process has not served the public well,” said Harding, who asked that the committee urge the board to “stretch out the process and not ratify the contract.”

“I fear we will be on a long-term pattern of decline,” he said.

Silvern also worried the way the current agreement was reached would erode public confidence.

“I have no doubt about good will on all parts,” said Silvern, who is a housing consultant for the City. “We are not in the business of gambling with the public purse. We are banking completely on that good will.”

In the end, the committee voted to recommend that the board on Thursday not approve the tentative agreement or any revenue transfers or expenditures associated with it.

The committee – which will study the district’s proposal to pay for the salary hikes before they go to the board December 14 – also will express its concerns Thursday about the way the agreement was reached.





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