Getting on the same accurate page about the fund balance and pay negotiations
Last week’s bargaining session was almost surreal.
The district’s chief financial officer (CFO) Bonnie Penner, a relative newcomer to the district, told us how the district has never used its fund balance in negotiations before. This is a key issue to us as the district has a rather large unassigned fund balance of $65.9 million. To say that money cannot be used for employee raises would force us to bargain over budgetary crumbs.
I have been bargaining for the SC/TA since the mid-1980’s. Our consultant, Al Weidner, was the district’s budget director during that same time period. For Penner to tell us how we bargained in the past is what makes this surreal. She was an elementary school student when we were bargaining salaries for Sarasota County Schools’ teachers and classified employees!
Her methodology for drawing that conclusion was to look at our raises in each year and compare it to the ending fund balance for that school year. With that methodology, she concluded that because the fund balance did not decrease by the cost of the raise, we didn’t use it for bargaining.
Actually, it shows the opposite. Even though the district used some of their projected fund balance to settle the contract, when the year was over, the district’s ending fund balance remained healthy. That was our goal! We have never and will never aspire to bankrupt the school district. Our goal is to earn for employees the largest raise possible, while allowing the district to remain financially healthy.
What makes this situation so unusual is that School Board members are not the villains here. The Board members have been very clear that they want employees to receive a good raise this year.
In the past, we have generally used the amount of the projected unassigned fund balance above 10% for bargaining purposes. The Board has a policy of maintaining a 7.5% fund balance and tries to keep it closer to 10%.
That is all fine and good with us, as long as the teaching and classified staff are being treated fairly. This year, Weidner estimates that the district has upwards of $50 million in excess of their 7.5% self-imposed cap, leaving about $30 million for bargaining. That is similar to what we bargained with last year.
As of now, management has said it only has $3 million for bargaining, which is quite a difference!
What is necessary here is for School Board members and the superintendent to take charge of their budget. Penner manages their budget; she doesn’t own it. Board members and the superintendent are the ones who set the direction of this school district’s budget, based upon their priorities.
It seems apparent to us that one of their priorities is to pay staff fairly. While the CFO has a right to express her opinion on those priorities, it is not her decision to make. The CFO needs to be reminded of that.
— Barry Dubin, executive director of the Sarasota Classified/Teachers Association