The Morgan Hill Times: Teachers steamed over district’s budget cut survey

By Scott Forstner

November 15, 2017

Six months after settling a public, year-long contract dispute with its employers, the local teachers union’s president sounded off on district leaders for devising an online survey that points to teacher salaries and retirement benefits among the main causes for budgetary shortcomings.

Morgan Hill Unified School District’s brass has been looking to shed $5.5 million in costs to counter a deficit spending trend that began last school term and is projected to be the case in the current school year—as well as two subsequent school years—if something is not done.

MHUSD’s current operating budget is $89,022,922 of a total budget, including all funds, of $114,799,040. It came with $4.4 million in deficit spending for the current year as expenditures outweighed revenues. However, district staff has maintained a reserve at 13.54 percent of the total budget.

“The survey was created by district staff to solicit feedback and input from employees, community members and parents,” explained Assistant Superintendent Kirsten Perez, who welcomed anyone to visit and click on “community survey” to participate. “The survey is just one of many ways that district staff is soliciting feedback.”

On the “Right Sizing the Budget” homepage, it states: “A number of factors, including this year’s student enrollment and state funding, will determine the final adjustment needed and how proposed expenditure reductions will impact schools and staff. The District anticipates making the budget adjustments through a combination of revenue enhancements and expenditure reductions.”

In response, Gemma Abels, head of the Morgan Hill Federation of Teachers, and the leaders of the district’s two other employee groups, as well as select parents and students, formed the district’s “Right Sizing the Budget” committee to tackle the issue.

Teachers unhappy with district’s rollout

However, Abels said she was blindsided by a survey developed by district staff, without committee members’ knowledge, to gauge community opinion on the best areas to look for making budget cuts. Abels became aware of the survey when staff received a “Right Sizing the Budget” newsletter.

In a brief introduction, the staff newsletter touts the district “as one of the most fiscally sound districts” in the state and points to student attendance, state funding and increased costs as the three main factors that affect the budget. Under increased costs, the newsletter mentions salary increases to staff.

“The decision to invest in our employees was intentional and when mixed with other increased costs, such as employee pension benefits and specialized programs, which we cannot control, we are now required to adjust our budget in other areas,” the newsletter states.

Abels and her union members were also “dismayed” that certain questions on the district-generated survey centered around “negotiated items” such as class size maximums that were established during previous negotiations and the number of professional development days.

At the Nov. 7 meeting, Abels, while encouraging her members and the public to take the survey, believed it was unfairly singling out MHFT, which includes teachers, counselors, speech pathologists and librarians among its more than 400 members.

She took exception to a statement under “Frequently Asked Questions” that points out “almost 90 percent of our annual spending goes to staffing costs” and “although reductions are being done in other areas a major share of the reductions must include staff positions.”

The survey asks: “School operating costs have increased over the last few years as a result of providing salary enhancements to support staff retention, increased pension costs, and increasing program costs for serving students with special needs. Are you aware of this?”

Under “Cost Reduction Measures,” the survey has participants prioritize where to make cuts, which included eliminating non-school positions (maintenance, transportation, district office personnel) and working with staff to decrease salaries and/or other forms of compensation.

In May, the teachers union finalized a 6 percent raise for the 2016-17 school term, which was paid retroactively, as well as an additional 3 percent boost for the current school year. A first-year teacher starts at $54,989.

“We are the biggest employee group and, along with many of our classified and site administrators, we are the employees that students and families see everyday,” Abels said. “I think the public might want to compare the salaries of the different employee groups in this district—our classified staff, our site management, our certificated teachers, our certificated management and our executive cabinet— before answering this survey,” Abels said.


Staffing to take a hit?

The classified employees union (salary ranges from $13.99-$33.26 per hour in first year) and the Morgan Hill Education Leaders (a high school principal starts at $129,304) also received the same salary hikes.

In June, the board extended Superintendent Steve Betando’s contract, which included a base salary of $262,890.82 for the 2017-18 school year (as well as $255,233.81 retroactively for the previous year) along with 3 percent raises in each subsequent year upon a positive evaluation. In addition, board-approved raises went to Assistant Supes Kirsten Perez ($196,711), Ramon Zavala ($191,136) and Fawn Myers ($196,711).

Abels said “maybe their answers to the budget questions (from the survey) would be different” if those figures were included on the district website, electronic newsletter and survey. Plus, with high teacher turnover (more than 70 new members this year), Abels said the union actually saved the district money since the newer teachers are less experienced than those they replaced, and thus make lower salaries.

“MHFT believes this district should be fiscally sound,” Abels concluded in her Nov. 7 speech. “We also believe the budget needs to be right-sized to achieve the goal that every student in Morgan Hill have access to the highest quality education that these limited resources can provide, and not to always maintain an exorbitant reserve.”

The survey also asks participants to place importance on school programs, use of technology, building maintenance, extracurricular activities, sports and other areas.

According to Perez, the $5.5 million amount of needed cuts “is based on our current budget projections and will be updated at each financial reporting period (December and March) as well as when State budget information is released (January and May).”