Tension Among School Board Members Grows as Budget Woes Loom
Debate over where to cut school budget causes bitterness, disagreement among members but teacher contract negotiations will move forward.
School board members Nate Cross and Tim Sullivan openly aired their frustrations to the public over what they believe is a complete mishandling by school administrators to bridge budget gaps that will be created by impending state funding losses at Monday night’s Board of Education work session.
As it stands, Westlake City Schools are expected to lose $4.9 million in state funding over the next two years, which means cuts to personnel and operating expenditures would be necessary to help balance the district’s $42-million annual budget.
Superintendent Dan Keenan and treasurer Mark Pepera proposed to reduce operating expenditures for next school year by $950,000. To achieve these cuts, field trips, high school and staff transportation, and summer maintenance, among other line items, would either be reduced or eliminated.
In discussion on how to go about decreasing personnel costs, which account for over 80 percent of the district’s budget, board members became ardently divided.
Disagreement arose as Keenan and Pepera’s plan called for a freeze of step increases to teachers’ salaries over the next school year, which would net a savings of $1.12 million.
To freeze these raises, Keenan needed majority approval of the board, but Cross and Sullivan spoke up, saying wages should not only be frozen, but reduced as well.
Instead of leaving it for discussion in executive session, they spoke about it, and their distaste of the manner in which the board operates, during the public meeting.
Cross suggested the school board go further and negotiate with the unions to freeze wages, reduce salaries across the board by five percent and increase the amount teachers contribute to their pensions and benefits.
“Let’s not kid ourselves; this is not about the kids,” Cross said. “It’s no secret the effort to offer a freeze with concessions is consistent with the marching orders of unions across the state who have been scurrying to reopen and renegotiate their contracts with the passage of Senate Bill 5—a new law they’re trying to circumvent here in Ohio.
“…We all know these meetings are scripted. We come here, we deliver our lines, there’s never an opportunity for discussion. That’s what will happen inside executive session. We know it. I know it, at least, because I’ve witnessed it for the last year and a half.”
Sullivan recommended cutting employees wages that exceed $90,000 by 10 percent, and cut everyone else’s salary by 3 percent, which would result in a $2.1 million savings for the district.
Following Sullivan’s remarks, which included questioning board president Tom Mays’s leadership ability, he was blasted by Mays for trying to set the details of a negotiation in public versus doing it behind closed doors.
“Showing leadership isn’t talking about what you want to do with regard to negotiations,” he said. “. . . Every day for the last 25 years I’ve negotiate things, and the worst thing you could possibly do, and I understand you’re an attorney and handle collection matters, but you don’t negotiate in public. You don’t set your floor and you don’t set your ceiling and you certainly don’t indicate what you’re looking for.”
Before adjournment to executive session, Mays and board members Carol Winter and Andrea Rocco gave Keenan the majority approval to seek concessions with the district’s two teacher unions, the WTA and OAPSE.
More details will unfold regarding the negotiation of those concessions at the board’s regular meeting on May 23.
Mays, Winter and Rocco also voted yes to implementing a tuition-based kindergarten program whereby incoming students will be charged $2,300 a piece to attend. Once again, Cross and Sullivan were staunchly against it, saying tuition could be avoided by deeper cuts to expenditures.
Keenan also alluded to putting a new school levy on the ballot some time in 2012, but he and Pepera said they want to see what kind of shape the state and local budget is in before determining or announcing the appropriate millage.