UCF budget OK’d; new teacher deal likely to be ratified next week

Budget calls for 2.01% balanced tax hike; new teacher pact increases costs by 2.19% per year

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times
SchoolMoneyEAST MARLBOROUGH — The final shape and form the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District 2013-14 budget took one step closer to becoming clear when the Board of Education voted 7-1 to give preliminary approval to a budget that would increase taxes by a 2.01% on average.

Meanwhile, based on discussions related to the budget, it appears that the board is prepared to ratify its new two-year agreement with the Unionville-Chadds Ford Education Association, its teachers’ union, next Monday, albeit with some concerns about changes to one health care provision. The union’s rank-and-file is expected to vote on the pact, Thursday.

On the budget, which comes up for final approval June 17, only board member Keith Knauss held out for a budget that fell entirely under the Act 1 limit of 1.7% — the district was approved for exceptions because of pension costs that allow it to increase taxes by as much as 3.39%. He suggested that going with the lower rate would likely have little impact on the operation of the district.

“We always end up with more money in our fund balance (at the end of the budget year), he said. “That’s to be expected because we budget conservatively.”

His colleagues, though, disagreed, generally seeming to feel it made sense to go with the higher rate for two reasons: the ability to reduce the amount of funds withdrawn from the pension reserve should the board decide to and to have a slightly higher starting point — again in anticipation of sharply higher pension costs — for next year’s Act 1 index, expected to be 2.2%.

The lone remaining question would appear to be whether the board will cut some $160,000 in spending to reduce the amount of funds being taken about the pension reserve fund for the budget. In the face of rapidly increasing pension costs, the district stocked away some $2.2 million in funds to help pay the spike in costs for the Pennsylvania School Employees Pension System.

One $70,000 cut seems likely: the cost of professional contract negotiators budgeted for in case the district were unable to reach a deal with its teachers. Another $90,000 is expected to come from a shifting of responsibilities among current staff in the district office, after some anticipated retirements — although the current number of employees is not expected to change. That cut, though, appeared to be dependent on the details of the moves, discussed in an executive session of the board’s personnel committee. Those meetings, because they often discuss specific individuals, are typically closed to the public.

While those issues seemed to be moving toward clarity, there was a great deal of discussion about the “opt-out” clause in the new teachers contract. Knauss and his colleague Jeff Hellrung issued a letter to the editor Monday afternoon objecting to the clause.

In the most recent contract, teachers could opt out of the district health insurance plan in return for a lump-sum payment of $3,250. The new pact cuts that payment in the first year to $2,400 in the 2013-14 school year and eliminates the opt-out payment entirely in 2014-15.

In the current pact, 43 teachers chose the opt-out. Eliminating the opt-out would reduce payments by $140,000. But Knauss and Hellrung argued that eliminating the opt-out payment might lead to a number of those teachers choosing to rejoin the health care plan, which currently costs the district about $15,000 per family plan. If all eligible teachers chose to do so — an impossibility, as some teachers are married to other district employees — the district could be facing more than $600,000 a year in additional costs.

Hellrung argued that restoring the opt-out would be a “win-win” for both the district and the teachers — but his colleagues said they were less sure about that, and worried about setting aside the entire agreement over this issue. Superintendent of Schools John Sanville noted that when the health care plans changed after the last contract, 60% of the teachers opted to pay more to keep their current insurance, rather than accept a similar plan at the previous contribution levels, suggesting that employees tended to be change-resistant when it comes to their health care plans.

Other members said they didn’t feel the issue was worthy of reopening the negotiations and risking a prolonged dispute with the teachers after reaching a good-faith deal with them. With the looming impact of the Affordable Care Act, a number of members expressed uncertainty over how any possible scenario might play out over the next couple of years.

“I don’t think this opt-out issue is enough to be worth scuttling the agreement,” board member Frank Murphy said.

Knauss also objected to the pay structure of the contract, which would not increase any base pay the first year, but give every teachers a $900 bonus. The second year, teachers would get their seniority and educational advancement increases, but the base pay would not change. Also in that second year, teachers at the top of the scale would get a one-time bonus of $1,100. The district said that contract would increase expenses by 2.19%, or just slightly under the projected Act 1 index for both years.

“We are asking for too little, and giving too much,” Knauss said of the agreement.

One provision of the deal that earned universal support from board members was the conversion of two half days in the school schedule to full days, increasing the total work year for teachers by one day. The deal also formalizes a tightening of standards for education reimbursement. Supplemental contracts — additional pay for additional work such as coaching a sport or serving as a club advisor — will be increased by 5% under the deal, the first such increase in a number of years.

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