The Manatee County school board’s tortured path to a 2011-2012 budget finally concluded last week after a divisive vote that then descended into a public squabble, offering more evidence of the distrust that permeates the panel.
The last-minute opposition by Julie Aranibar and Karen Carpenter to teacher salary cuts and furloughs, increases in employee health insurance premiums and the elimination of step pay hikes came as an unwelcome surprise to other board members and Superintendent Tim McGonegal. In the 3-2 vote, Harry Kinnan, Bob Gause and Barbara Harvey agreed to impose those difficult impacts on teachers.
Mustering up the courage to criticize the people with the power to control his fate with the district, McGonegal accused Aranibar and Carpenter of “playing politics.” His anger is understandable given the circumstances, especially considering that he was following the board’s directives with his spending reductions.
After meeting in eight private executive sessions to settle impasse issues with the Manatee Education Association, the school board apparently came to a unanimous agreement.
But that consensus unraveled during the impasse hearing last Thursday when the teachers union presented information that disputed the need to offset the deficit in the district’s health insurance fund as quickly as budgeted.
Both Aranibar and Carpenter found that information more credible than the district’s position, a telltale sign of the deep distrust that has been ongoing since the two were elected to the board in 2010.
The Manatee County school district operates a self-insured health fund, paying claims to a third-party administrator, Blue Cross Blue Shield. The deficit ballooned to a shocking $9.4 million last year thanks to mistaken actuarial projections of claims.
In an April 2011 school board meeting, Aranibar and Carpenter questioned the validity of the district’s three-year plan to return the health fund to solvency, with the key component being an increase in employee premiums in order to achieve a surplus in 2013. At the same meeting, McGonegal proposed a quicker time frame, pumping almost $6 million in federal stimulus money into the fund in order to put the health fund in the red by June 2012.
The board has been working on the health fund and current budget for almost a year, demanding spending cuts of $14 million instead of McGonegal’s original $11 million trim.
Board members also insisted on pay cuts instead of the superintendent’s position in favor of furlough days only. The combination of savings from pay cuts and furloughs will save $3.7 million, with $3 million earmarked for paying off the health insurance debt as directed by the board.
Have conditions changed so dramatically? Are the union’s projections and figures actuarialy sound? Have they been vetted?
A vote on teacher salary reductions is extremely difficult under any circumstances. But the district’s 2011-2012 budget came down to the wire, with pay cuts retroactive and destructive to teacher households.
Back in July, we opined that it was time for board and district divisions to be bridged after several 3-2 votes on the budget. Whether intended or not, Aranibar and Carpenter sent a political message to Manatee County that the school board still cannot work as a team.
Work on the 2012-2013 budget started months ago, earlier than usual with a commitment to transparency and open lines of communication with the public. Can this board quit bickering and playing the blame game, work collegially and achieve solidarity on the direction of education in Manatee County? One can hope. The first order of business should be the establishment of trust.