Thursday’s school board meeting found some board members feeling somewhat “backed into a corner,” in the words of board member Brad Rupert, as the board adopted the district budget for …
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Thursday’s school board meeting found some board members feeling somewhat “backed into a corner,” in the words of board member Brad Rupert, as the board adopted the district budget for 2019-2020 school year.
School board members were presented with two budget options at the June 6 meeting. Each option allocated a different number for the cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) to teacher and support staff salaries next year.
While the first option reflected the board’s recommendation from previous meetings — a .67% COLA — the second option reflected a 1.5% increase. The district negotiations team arrived at that number after bargaining sessions with the Jefferson County Education Association (JCEA) and Jeffco Education Support Professionals Association (JESPA).
For months, members of the unions have held that they would not ratify a contract that gave them only a .67% COLA, with some reiterating that point during the board meeting.
“I believe in setting an example for my students that I will no longer sit by silently,” Wheat Ridge High School teacher Lisa Lee said, “whether it’s standing on the side of the road holding a sign or standing at the front of my classroom with my tribe.”
JESPA drafted a tentative agreement with the district on May 30 that would allow for a 1.5% COLA. That adjustment, in addition to funds from the passage of measure 5A and scheduled staff raises would result in an average pay increase of 7.07% for district staff members.
However, the JCEA stuck to its previous stance that a 1.5% COLA did not meet members’ expectation. The union and district bargaining teams agreed to hold another bargaining session in August, acknowledging that this meeting would occur after the school board adopted the budget in June.
If a COLA greater than 1.5% were agreed upon by negotiators, the board would be required to revise its budget after approval — a situation that has not occurred since the 2015-2016 school year.
Board members said they were disappointed that the teams had not come to a decision, calling for a change in next year’s negotiations process.
“I heard comments from the association that they intentionally delayed talking about compensation until all of the other issues were resolved,” Rupert said. “That got us into the box we’re in today.”
Board member Ali Lasell agreed that the process had several flaws, stating that more must be done next year to make sure all parties are working “off of the same set of facts.” She advised that the district hold a short budget presentation at each bargaining session to remind union members of facts concerning the budget.
Board members made other suggestions for change, as well, with Rupert suggesting the union’s communication to the board become less charged.
“I don’t think it’s effective to question the motives of people,” he said, “so that behavior I want to get changed.”
The board then addressed union members’ suggestion that the district take money from unassigned reserves and put it toward a higher COLA.
“That reserve fund is there in case a crisis occurs,” president Ron Mitchell said. “I do believe the economy cycles and sooner or later, we are going to need that reserve fund.”
Even so, under pressure to ratify a contract with JESPA that allowed for a 1.5% COLA and adopt a budget by the state deadline of June 30, the board discussed the second budget option, which would risk pulling from reserves to fund the COLA.
Ideally, said CFO Kathleen Askelson, the 1.5% COLA — which would cost $5 million more than the .67% COLA — would be partly funded by revenues the district had not previously assumed. Askelson and her team revised the budget to assume $500,000 in interest revenues and $1 million from vehicle registration.
However, she warned that these solutions would likely only fund the new COLA for one or two years, requiring the district to depend on the state and voters to fund the increases in the future.
Askelson said the district would look into where the remaining $3.5 million for the COLA would come from. She said she was confident they could find the money in underspent money from the previous year.
If the district were unable to find the $3.5 million in the budget, she said, the money would come from unassigned reserves.
Added Askelson: “These (risks) are small in the big scheme of our budget.”
While board members hesitated to risk utilizing unassigned reserves, they also agreed to support the district negotiations team and its decision to offer a 1.5% COLA.
The board unanimously adopted the second budget option along with the JESPA agreement. That agreement states that, should the JCEA negotiate a COLA greater than a 1.5%, support professionals will receive the same COLA.
The budget also allows for several additional expenditures the board approved in its May meeting, including more than $600,000 to engage students at risk of dropping out and more than $200,000 to fund campus security positions.
With negotiations between the JCEA and district set for August, board members stressed the importance of completing negotiations and revising the process for future years.
“It’s the responsibility of everybody to get very serious about negotiating an agreement before the school year starts,” Rupert said. “I want to make sure we do not put off negotiating numbers till the end.”
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