School district drafts budget; teachers' union contract still in negotiations

 

April 25, 2024

Olivia Rose

Alice Cumps testifies from the wood podium in the school library at the April 16 PSD School Board meeting.

There were more attendees than usual at the Petersburg School District Board meeting last week as over a dozen teachers observed discussion about critical issues surrounding district finances.

A few attendees testified before the PSD School Board, expressing shared concerns related to the district's tight budget and ongoing certified teacher negotiations between PSD and the Associated Teachers of Petersburg (ATP) union, which have struggled to reach an agreement on a three-year contract amidst financial constraints.

Speakers underscored that inflation has outpaced raises in teacher wages, warning that failure to adjust the salary schedule accordingly in the upcoming contract could jeopardize teacher retention and the quality of education in Petersburg.

"Though some may not realize it, school funding does not take care of itself," district teacher Becky Martin testified. "We are at a breaking point and ... funding must increase or costs must be shared ... Please continue your efforts to secure additional funds from the [borough] and state ... this is a community and state issue that teachers can no longer hide."

"If we as a community don't provide the teachers needed cost of living salary adjustments, we are on track to being embarrassingly close to having the lowest teacher pay in the state," testified district parent Brian Smith. "Our district has to show that we value our teachers, if we want to be able to recruit and retain the teachers that we want educating our students."

During the last negotiated three-year contract cycle, inflation rates increased five times more than teacher salaries.

PSD's last offer to ATP would raise salaries over the next three years, but public comments made at the meeting stressed the district's proposal does not adequately adjust for inflation.

In Petersburg, teacher salaries currently start at a low of $47,313 to a high of $88,362.

"Our low-end, our beginning teacher salaries are ... not anywhere close to where they need to be," said PSD Superintendent Erica Kludt-Painter. "We've all decided this [negotiation cycle] to move forward with bringing proposals that do raise that bottom end."

Under the last offer made by PSD, salaries on the "low end" will rise at least 15% and higher positions by 8% by the end of the three-year contract cycle. Despite the highest wage on the proposed salary schedule reaching $95,583, the teachers union considers it below satisfactory.

ATP President Alice Cumps said most teachers in the district "would get less or significantly less" than the current rate of inflation with the last formal offer PSD made to ATP.

"It's imperative that we strive for fair and equitable compensation for all of our teachers to attract and retain talent," Cumps said.

PSD shares these concerns about teacher retention, salaries, and troublesome inflation.

"We don't disagree ... I think the issue is that we're dealing with a very constrained situation," said PSD Superintendent Erica Kludt-Painter. "I don't know that we can make up the amount of inflationary issues in this cycle..."

School districts across Alaska are struggling as funding from the state has remained flat for several years. Alaska state legislature did not increase the base student allocation (BSA) funding that districts rely on; PSD says any one-time education funding from the state is unreliable for the district to budget for.

At the School Board meeting, the district presented a preliminary draft of their next budget to share information as the district anticipates another year without increased funding from the state.

The draft budget proposes cuts in every department, including fewer teachers and decreased activity travel.

Even so, expenditures in the first draft of the budget are higher than revenues, "So that requires the district to use over $300,000 of the fund balance to offset the shortcomings of revenue in this first draft of the fiscal year 25 budget," said PSD Finance Director Shannon Baird.

"The fund balance goes quick when you use it. And when you use it, it would be very hard to ever build it back up because ... you would have to have more revenue than you have expenditures, and that's not something we can really bet on happening," Baird added.

The draft budget was made using the last offer that PSD made and accounting for potentially receiving more funding from the Petersburg Borough - which is considering funding PSD to the cap at $3.4 million, according to the borough's proposed FY25 budget.

But even if the district receives a one-time increase in state funding and $3.4 million from the borough in FY25, the district will still have to make reductions of approximately $500,000 in each of the next three school years and find $1.5 million to maintain a"somewhat healthy" fund balance.

"The district is making a calculated risk with this offer ... to offer a generous salary ... we will be looking at going into savings to satisfy the needs of current programs, which do make our district attractive to students and families, also while looking at ... this wage increase," said Kludt-Painter. "We want to give a bump [in pay] ... we don't disagree ... we want to look at increasing these wages."

Ongoing negotiation meetings have not happened for over a month. Mediation through a free federal service occurred in early April, but was unsuccessful in reaching an agreement. PSD proposed this last formal offer just before the school board meeting last week, and it remains on the table until ATP makes a counter proposal.

 

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