Another option for Baker Schools' budget woes

By Jayson Jacoby, The Baker City Herald

The Baker School District has a $2.15 million problem, and the solution is going to hurt.

The pain will be widespread.

Some teachers and other employees likely will lose their jobs as a result of the district balancing its budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Some property owners in the district will pay more in taxes if the school board puts a local option levy on the May 17 ballot and voters approve it.

If the board switches to a four-day week for the next school year,

families will suffer as they're forced to pay someone to look after

their kids one day per week.

The challenge for the school board - and it's a considerable one - is to minimize the harm done to students.

We were disappointed, then, that the cost-cutting priorities in the

"cabinet report," which the board approved last week, don't include one

option that would have no effect on students save the positive effect

of sparing some of their teachers' jobs.

That option is to try to negotiate across-the-board and equal cuts in

compensation for both teachers and classified staff (each group is

represented by a different union), and to impose such cuts for

administrators and other non-union employees.

This is not an ideal option.

In fact it's a bad one.

We don't want to see anybody's wages and benefits go down. That siphons

money from the local economy, and businesses make no distinction

between customers who draw a public paycheck rather than a private one.

But with a $2.15 million hole to fill, the school district is well past

the point where it has the luxury of choosing between the good options

and the bad.

Because personnel costs are the biggest expense for the district -

about 70 percent of the $16 million general fund - it's impossible to

balance the budget without reducing the personnel bill.

Even if voters approve a local option tax levy - and we suspect that's a longshot - the basic equation would remain.

The tax levy would raise an estimated $725,700 per year, leaving the district $1.42 million short.

There are of course myriad ways to save that money.

We hope, though, that both the school board and administrators, as they

confront that ticklish task, share one overriding goal: To cut as few

jobs as possible and, as a result, have the smallest possible effect on

students as well as the workforce.

Yet in our estimation the cabinet report the board approved last week

fails to accomplish that goal because it doesn't include the option of

district-wide compensation cuts that would save jobs.

Mike Ogan, a local resident who is a member of a task force that

presented a list of suggestions to the district, recommends an

across-the-board pay cut of 12 percent, which would save an estimated

$1.2 million to $1.6 million.

That's a deeper cut than we can endorse.

We prefer a plan that calls for trimming all employees' overall

compensation through a combination of reducing medical insurance

allowances and PERS contributions as well as a pay cut.

The district's goal ought to be to spread the pain of this budget

shortfall as widely and as equitably as can be done. Requiring every

employee, union and non-union alike, to give up the same percentage of

benefits would do that.

Unfortunately, that tactic, even combined with switching to a four-day

week, probably wouldn't save the district enough money to avoid layoffs

altogether.

Then, too, there is no guarantee that the two unions would concede to a request for across-the-board cuts.

(Although in that case we would eagerly await union officials'

explanation for why they would sacrifice members' jobs rather than have

everyone make modest concessions in their compensation.)

Nonetheless, we believe the school board has a responsibility to the

students it serves to strive to treat every employee as precious.

It's fashionable, in difficult times such as this, to say that we're looking out for "the kids."

But that platitude rings hollow when teachers and other school employees get pink slips that needn't have been written.

13109754
The Baker City Herald
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