Avoiding school layoffs won't be easy if we point fingers

July 24, 2001 12:00 am

Pointing fingers isnt going to solve our school funding crisis unless the tips point to solutions.

That is why we are setting high expectations for teachers, parents and school administrators going into tonights school board meeting and the coming school year.

Because the options are fairly straightforward, whether we like them or not. Start slinging accusations like mud and we arent going to go anywhere. Seek meaningful options and cooperation, however, and we might salve the pain and solve the problem.

Last week, administrators and union officials made a crucial first step towards cooperating to find a way out of the worst predicament for schools in recent memory.

They agreed to seek voluntary separation agreements from 10 staff members. Severance includes a $12,000 payment, plus a cash stipend equal to the districts insurance contribution monthly for 12 years or until age 62.

Eligibility is limited to teachers with 10 or more years of service with Baker School District 5J. Of the districts 140 teachers, 74 are at or near retirement age.

Finding 10 people willing to make that kind of sudden life change in a pinch will be difficult.

Presumably, the union is up to the challenge. Negotiators signed on to the program instead of proposing an alternative, such as an across the board pay and benefit freeze or decrease that would preserve jobs. No doubt, it will be easier to convince 10 people to retire than convince 140 people to accept less pay for the same job.

Within hours, however, union officials were throwing up roadblocks to achieving the voluntary cuts. Union president-elect Carmen Ott called the move blackmail, citing the districts intention to lay off seven teachers if 10 wont retire.

Current union president Judy Trohkimoinen equated the savings from the cuts to the amount still in dispute between Baker schools and the Union-Baker Education Services District for special education. She suggested teachers are being forced to bear the brunt of a funding error committed by Superintendent Toni Hardman.

Certainly, the absence of more than $300,000 in anticipated revenues from this past years budget was a setback for the district. And other revenue sources projected for the upcoming year have come up short, too, compounding the districts problems.

The gaffe with the ESD is certainly worthy of review by the school board, and Hardman is likely not beyond reproach for her handling of the verbal agreement that became a very expensive misunderstanding.

But like it or not, that money doesnt exist. And neither do the reserves the district has been spending down the last seven years to increase salaries for teachers and administrators, pay higher benefit costs and cover other expenses.

The opportunity to avoid past mistakes is over. The school board is now charged with scrutinizing the proposed budget and making cuts that will maintain essential services while reducing costs.

Unless the teachers union can offer an alternative, we have to agree with Hardman that the districts offer of voluntary separation is the most humane option.

In lean times, an employer doesnt have to offer employees the chance to decide who will stay and who will leave. That decision can come written in pink with no warning and no input from teachers.