Our View: Auburn Union must keep its eye on finances over long-term

Our View
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When mediation begins in the impasse between the Auburn Union Elementary School District and its teachers’ union, a central theme will be whether district administrators are saving sensibly for the future – or saving at the expense of today’s students and teachers. The mediator must err on the side of long-term financial stability. The district and teachers’ union have been at impasse for more than two weeks, after the union rejected a district proposal calling for some $582,000 in additional cuts affecting teaching positions. The union contends the district is channeling teaching dollars into other accounts, building a fund of some $3 million at the end of the 2008-2009 school year. District officials say some of the money is in reserve, while other amounts are in categorical or specific accounts restricted from use for teacher salaries. Unless serious cuts are made now, the district will run out of money by the 2011-12 school year, district Trustee Daniel Berlant said last week. A state-appointed mediator should help the district and union resolve the budget gap, and determine who is responsible for what portion. But if this dispute is a microcosm of what is happening in other school districts, and in many municipal and state governments, teachers should prepare for the worst. Up and down California and throughout the Sacramento region, teacher layoffs have become painfully common, pitting teachers against administrators, administrators against the state, and taxpayers against a public educational system seen as entrenched, out of touch and run by union bosses. In Sacramento City Unified School District, the teachers’ union has opted not to reopen contract negotiations in the wake of a multi-million budget gap. District administrators there say union concessions on health benefit contributions and co-pays would go a long way in easing the crunch. If not, more than 300 teacher layoffs are expected. In the Eureka Union School District in Granite Bay, 21 full- and part-time teachers are losing their jobs in a district facing a $4.3 million deficit. And in the Placer Union High School District, Superintendent Dave Horsey expects to eliminate an $8 million shortfall by cutting programs at the Placer School for Adults, not hiring 10 to11 teaching positions due to retirement, and laying off another eight teachers in the 2010-11 school year. Reduced administration and furlough days are also part of mix. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s May budget revision offered no relief. State educational funding is in decline. And with state lawmakers gridlocked on how to bridge a $19.1 billion budget hole, local school districts are on their own to deal with a miserable set of options. Which brings us back to Auburn Union teachers and administrators. Teachers work hard. Tasked with more students, standardized testing and reduced funds for supplies and just about everything else, a teacher’s daily job is tougher than it has ever been. Administrators don’t have it much easier. Balancing a budget with reduced revenue and rising costs is difficult, made all the harder knowing that every decision can have a huge impact on families and a child’s future. Mediation will test the trust each side has in each other. And while the exchange between teachers and district officials last week was civil, that could change with a mediator’s decision. Auburn Union teachers, administrators and trustees must agree that the long-term financial viability of the district is something they must share – and own. Without that, the district is living on borrowed time.