District's tough task

By Baker City Herald Editorial Board May 20, 2011 04:09 pm

Voters in the Baker School District announced emphatically Tuesday that they’re not willing to raise their property taxes to aid the district.

The local option tax levy, which would have raised about $725,000 per year over the next five years, failed by a margin of 72 percent to 28 percent.

This defeat both simplifies, and complicates, the task now facing the school board, administration and the district’s two unions as they prepare for the 2011-12 school year.

Mostly the latter.

The situation is simpler because district officials now know precisely the predicament they’re in.

But getting out of this fix is no simple matter.

The district projects it will have to cut 18.11 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs to balance the budget.

That’s a bit better than estimates from March, when officials figured they would have to cut 11.51 FTE jobs if voters approved the levy, and lay off 12 teachers if the levy failed.

Nonetheless, the loss of any jobs is lamentable in our stagnant economy. And the loss of teachers is especially troubling because it affects students.

Our question is whether all the parties involved, despite being traditional adversaries in the case of unions and administrators, can together craft a compromise that saves a significant number of those pink-slipped jobs.

We believe it is possible.

But it won’t be easy.

You can’t scrutinize the school district budget, deleting paper clips here and light bulbs there, and magically preserve jobs.

The money, if it is to be found, must come, in one way or another, from the employees who earn it.

Salaries account for 43.9 percent of the district’s general fund spending.

Benefits, including health insurance and retirement contributions, make up another 26.3 percent.

That’s 70.2 percent in total.

In February we suggested the district pursue a strategy best described as equally shared sacrifice.

The idea is that every employee in the district, union and administration, loses the same percentage of compensation.

We still believe the shared sacrifice concept is valid.

But it might not be the best way to go now.

Among its flaws is that it’s inflexible. A more feasible approach might be that each group of employees — the two unions (one represents teachers, the other represents “classified” staff such as bus drivers, cooks and custodians) and non-union employees — has to cut a certain percentage of compensation, but their members can collectively decide how to reach that target.

One union might choose a salary cut, while another elects to lower its health insurance costs.

The district also should take into consideration that the classified employees, who make an hourly wage rather than a salary, will have their pay cut regardless. That’s because the school board has decided to switch to a four-day week next year.

As we said, this strategy is far from ideal. Besides taking money from employees, it could make it harder for the district, which already has one of the lower-paid workforces among comparably sized Oregon schools, to attract teachers.

But that’s a theoretical problem. The loss of teachers is a real, and immediate, problem. And the only people who can still solve it have but a few months to come up with a fix.