Bethel schools started classes Wednesday just hours after striking teachers approved a two-year contract that will cost the district an additional $4.8 million. Now district officials have to figure out how to pay for it.
Over the next two months, administrators will scrutinize this school year’s $157 million operating budget in search of $1.8 million in cuts, district officials said Wednesday. Next school year’s budget must absorb the remaining $3 million.
“There are hard choices to be made,” Bethel Superintendent Tom Seigel said. “Our intent is to the extent possible not to cut the wonderful people we have working for us. We’ll look at everything that can be cut from the standpoint of purchases, first.”
The task will be tough, since salaries and benefits make up 81 percent of the district budget. The district employs 1,050 teachers, librarians, occupational therapists and other certificated professionals covered under the new contract, plus 900 other full- and part-time workers.
The bulk of the additional expenses – $3.4 million – will raise teacher salaries by increasing the portion of their paycheck that’s funded locally, for work outside the school day.
Teachers are now in store for an overall salary increase of 6.8 percent the first year and 7.7 percent the second year, including state mandated cost-of-living and salary equity increases of 4.3 percent and 3.5 percent, respectively.
The remaining $1.4 million in added expenses will fund higher pay for substitute teachers, higher contributions to a health care pool, more support for teachers with large classes, and relief for therapists and speech-language pathologists with high caseloads, district spokesman Mark Wenzel said.
The district also is hoping for growth in student enrollment. Each full-time students generates about $8,000 in state funding, Wenzel said. “If we grow by 50 to 100 students this year, it will help us tremendously,” he said.
While the Bethel Education Association, which represents teachers and other certificated employees, had pointed to the district’s $13.6 million ending fund balance in August as a possible source of money, district officials said all but $1 million of that has been earmarked for projects such as the one-time expense of opening three schools in 2009.
Though no decision has been made, Seigel said places to consider trimming might include $1.5 million in the fund balance originally designated to replace school copy machines and $500,000 to replace the artificial turf at Art Crate Field.
The district also might look at cutting office supplies and delaying or spreading purchases over several years instead of buying them at once, Seigel said.
But the district is reluctant to reduce the $1 million in unreserved money that’s also part of the fund balance. It’s standard practice in government to maintain a 5 percent unreserved fund balance, which would be $7.9 million in Bethel’s case.
“We would like to have a larger fund balance,” Seigel said.
So why agree to a contract that officials weren’t certain how to fund?
“The district will afford this because we have to have our kids in school,” Seigel said.
He said that the dispute was an outcome of the state not adequately funding education. Bethel, he stressed, is a “poor” district, with high bus transportation and special education expenses that the state doesn’t fully reimburse, and local levy and funding limitations that other districts don’t face.
“It clearly is not a rational system,” he said. “The entire K-12 effort is clearly underfunded by the state in direct contradiction to their paramount responsibility. What you saw here is a strike that’s a reflection of that.”
While acknowledging that the district doesn’t have as much money as some, union President Tom Cruver said he thinks the added contract costs, including higher salaries to retain and attract teachers, are a worthy expense that the district can afford.
“It’s a matter of priorities,” said Cruver, president of the Bethel Education Association. “The most important thing in the classroom is the teachers, not the textbooks, not the technology they want to buy.”
Debby Abe: 253-597-8694