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Published in Print: March 3, 2004, as Teachers' Union Sacrifices Raises to Help Strapped District

Teachers' Union Sacrifices Raises to Help Strapped District

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Principals, teachers, and other school employees in a small Ohio district have agreed to a pay freeze to help their financially struggling system stay afloat.

In the wake of two failed attempts in 2003 to raise money through property-tax levies, the union that represents teachers and support-staff workers in the Newbury Local school district decided last month to forgo a pay hike for the 2004-05 school year.

"We're being realistic. There is simply no money," said Joe Kuchta, a social studies teacher at Newbury High School and the president of the Newbury Education Association. The union represents 80 teachers, bus drivers, secretaries, and custodians in the 772-student district southeast of Cleveland.

The three-year union contract specifies a 4 percent pay raise for the 2002-03 and 2003-04 school years, and a raise for 2004-05 that was to be determined through negotiation by the end of this month, said Mr. Kuchta.

But the National Education Association affiliate decided not to seek that raise because the district faced a second round of budget cuts after the second of last year's tax-levy proposals was defeated in November.

"We couldn't in good faith go into negotiations with a 4 percent offer," Mr. Kuchta said last week. "There isn't even 1 percent."

Downsizing

Newbury cut its $6 million operating budget for 2003-04 by about $600,000 after voters defeated the first levy proposal last May, said Stephanie Swain, the district's interim treasurer. Three teaching positions that became vacant were not refilled, two were cut down to half time, and services in nursing, psychology, transportation, and maintenance were reduced.

After voters rejected the next proposed levy in November, the school board outlined another series of cuts for the 2004-05 school year, which would include giving up nine more teaching positions, cutting back more on transportation and supplies, and probably increasing class sizes.

Administrators at the district's two schools have agreed to a pay freeze this year and next to ease the financial woes. Teachers joined them by giving up their planned pay hike for next year. A 4 percent raise for union members would have cost the district about $100,000, Mr. Kuchta said.

Last summer, the union's members agreed to downgrade their prescription-drug benefits for 2003-04, saving the district $90,000. Members now pay more than twice what they used to for their prescriptions, he said.

"My hat's off to the Newbury Education Association for understanding the needs of the district," said Dick Wagner, the principal of Newbury High School. "We're all in this together, and they're doing their part."

Because of the cutbacks, salary freezes, and benefit changes, the district anticipates staying in the black this school year and next. But without a long-term financial solution, its future viability is still in question, Ms. Swain said.

Ohio's school funding system has been declared unconstitutional by the state's highest court, in part because it depends heavily on local property taxes. The high court has directed the legislature to design a more equitable way of funneling money to schools. ("Ohio Court Rejects State School Aid System," Jan. 8, 2003.)

Newbury residents were to vote this week on another levy, which would generate $800,000 a year for the school district, Ms. Swain said. Even if it is approved, however, the money would not be collected in time to stave off the cuts for 2004-05, she said, so the district would have to go ahead with the reductions or borrow money.

Vol. 23, Issue 25, Page 12

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