MUSD at fork in the road over contract renegotiations
The old saying from baseball great Yogi Berra states, “When you reach the fork in the road, take it.” Not to make light of its situation, but Mammoth Unified School District’s recent talks with the Mammoth Educators Association employees union have reached that fork, and both sides opted to take it, mutually declaring an “impasse.”
That move will send the process to the state education Labor Relations Board, which will assign a mediator to oversee contract negotiations that would ideally help MUSD better manage certain aspects of its budget. MUSD is in a race against time to close deficits and avert potential long-term fiscal insolvency. MUSD Superintendent Rich Boccia told The Sheet on Wednesday that the declaration of impasse is something he welcomes.
“It’s a scary thing, but I’m looking forward to the opportunity to discuss matters,” he said. “It gets to the point where we’re just not talking to each other.” The role of the mediator will be to hear concerns for both sides and shepherd new deals, which could take as long as 60 days, though Boccia said he really couldn’t be certain how long the process would actually take to complete, though he’s hoping for sooner rather than later.
Perhaps the District’s biggest concern: insurance costs. The 3-year contract in place includes an option for a $20,000 per family plan, with an 8% year-over-year increase. Boccia is looking to set a series of furlough days and a “hard cap” on insurance costs, while still making sure teachers are “taken care of,” which he thinks amounts to a “fair share” plan in which everyone has “some skin in the game.”
Also on Wednesday, Boccia met with Mono County’s Office of Education to deliver a required 3-year budget plan, which addresses District operational costs, the budget deficit, which this year runs about $800,000, and how to maintain a reserve fund that both meets and well exceeds the state minimum (3%). The plan does, he said, include a mix of stricter limits on any travel, better and more strategic use of Measure S parcel tax dollars and NOW Education Fund revenue, possible plans for other types of revenue enhancement if necessary, and attrition.
“We have an English teacher who took a leave of absence from [Mammoth] High School,” Boccia cited as an example, adding that the position will not be replaced. He and MHS Principal Gabe Solorio are instead working on absorbing it into the existing staffing.
Boccia said these types of decisions, as well as others, such as the recent layoffs of four certificated positions announced last week, are very difficult to make, but essential in keeping the District on stable footing. “It would be failed leadership on my part if I were to let that train keep coming at us,” he stated. “And I’d rather be accused of having too much reserve than too little.”
That reserve is a key item of concern. As MUSD Interim Finance Director Michele McClowry has pointed out to the Board on several occasions, in its current fiscal year budget, to ensure programs and services for students continue even while the District considers and implements various budget cuts, the District has a reserve of 29%. Given the projected funding cuts to education and the District’s estimated operational costs, without significant changes being made to the District’s operational expenses, that reserve drops dramatically to 11% by the 2013-14 school year, and will show a -3% balance by 2014-15 school year, the third year out. At that point, MUSD would officially be insolvent.
“People might think 29% is fairly robust, but the fact is that that amount would barely cover four months of the District’s operational costs,” Boccia explained. Indeed, MUSD’s reserve really isn’t as robust as most other Basic Aid, property tax-funded school districts in the state. According to Ron Bennett, President and CEO of School Services of California, which specializes in California school finance, Mammoth Unified, as a small basic aid district, should have a 33 to 38 percent reserve, and actually has one of the state’s lowest Basic Aid percentages.
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