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Paso teachers upset by pay turn out for board meeting

Teachers hold signs declaring “Where’s the accountability?” and “Where did $1.59 million go?” during a Paso Robles school board meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012.
Teachers hold signs declaring “Where’s the accountability?” and “Where did $1.59 million go?” during a Paso Robles school board meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Teachers in a packed room implored the Paso Robles School District on Tuesday night to resume salary negotiations that are certain to result in pay cuts.

But while the teachers argued against a proposed 6 percent pay cut, board members and Superintendent Kathy McNamara said teachers haven’t been realistic about the district’s budget crisis, which threatens to result in a state takeover.

“You can hate me — that’s OK,” McNamara said. “But at least deal with me honestly.”

In December, the district gave itself a negative certification, meaning it might not have the 1 percent reserve fund required by the state at the end of this school year. To avoid a state takeover, the district now has to make cuts so it can be solvent. And because salaries and benefits account for 91 percent of the district’s $54 million budget, cuts must come from the workforce.

But teachers, who have experienced layoffs and larger class sizes in recent years because of cuts, charge that a costly mistake by the district has resulted in the current crisis. When financials were closed in 2009-10, a health and welfare benefit liability was written off in error. As a result, a subsequent restatement to the general fund reduced the fund’s balance by $1.6 million.

In a letter to the school board, teacher union President Jim Lynett called for accountability regarding the error. During the meeting, teachers held signs declaring “Where’s the accountability?” and “Where did $1.59 million go?” Other teachers described how a 6 percent pay cut would impact their families.

The negative certification was made public not long before the next round of teacher contracts was set to be negotiated, forcing both sides to consider how teacher pay would factor into the budget shortfall. A recent 11-hour negotiation between the district and the union ended in an impasse called by the district.

“Please go back to the table with an open mind and look for a positive solution,” Lynett told the board.

The union offered to take three furlough days, which Lynett said would help the district be solvent this year. But the district wants to cut teacher pay 3 percent this year and 3 percent next year — a proposal Lynett characterized in his letter to the board as “draconian.”

The average teacher pay in Paso Robles is $66,159 annually, with an additional $18,000 in benefits.

Board member Debi Saunders said the district has asked teachers to take furloughs in the past, but the teachers declined. “Now we have to act quickly; it’s beyond furlough days,” she said.

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