Debate over reimbursing teachers heads to Board of Finance

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MONROE, CT — Savings in this year’s budget can allow the school district to use $92,000 to reinstate student clubs at Masuk and Jockey Hollow, but last week the teachers’ union president reminded the board of three furlough days its members gave up to help the district amid a tough budget year, affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The memorandum of understanding between the Monroe Education Association and the town promised teachers would be reimbursed, if certain money is available.

“By reinstating clubs, you will be compensating some teachers at the expense of the members of all the other bargaining units,” Marie Blake, the MEA president, said of teachers who receive stipends for involvement in clubs.

Of funding the clubs, she said, “they’re just that: They’re extra. They should be paid after we’ve met all of our other financial obligations, so I am asking that, as a board, you entertain the thought of putting extra savings aside to make a good faith effort pay back the members of all the bargaining units.”

Aside from the teachers, the administrators union also gave furlough days and the custodians union agreed to forgo raises to help the town.

During the Board of Education’s Oct. 5 meeting, Acting Superintendent of Schools Joseph Kobza said the $92,000 would come from savings from reductions in summer IT and custodial help and $55,000 in savings from five days less of bus transportation.

During the budget process, Kobza said Central Office made a cut list with the intention of trying to bring back things they could. So far, he said the district reinstated four or five teachers and the culinary program at Masuk High School.

Kobza said one of the things they talked about trying to bring back was the student clubs.

Though the Board of Education can decide to use its savings to reimburse teachers, and members of other bargaining units who agreed to the furlough days, Section 5 of the memorandum of understanding specifically mentions using state and federal funds. It reads:

If the district receives “any additional unencumbered financial assistance or funding from the State or Federal government beyond that currently budgeted, and those funds result in the Board having a surplus over its reasonable and necessary expenses at the end of the year, the District agrees to apply that money to restoring one or more furlough days, unless the money is specifically designated by legislation for other purposes.”

It also says “the determination of what constitutes the reasonable and necessary expenses of the Board shall be in the sole discretion of the Board.”

The 2019-2020 surplus

The $92,000 discussed during last week’s Board of Education meeting was from savings in the current, 2020-21 budget.

The teachers union had also asked that money from a $323,000 surplus in last year’s, 2019-2020 Board of Education budget be used to reimburse members for the furlough days. But by law, that money must be returned to the town.

Steve Kirsch, a Board of Finance member, noted how a list of cuts were made to the original education budget proposal for 2020-21. He invited the Board of Education to come before his board with a request to use some of the surplus to restore things they deem important for education.

During its last meeting of September, the majority of the Board of Education agreed with board member Nick Kapoor’s proposal to ask the finance board to use $184,000 to restore one furlough day and give raises to custodians, who agreed to a zero increase to help the district.

The remaining $139,000 would be used to set up a special education fund, according to request.

The request will be made at the Board of Finance meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. this Thursday.

Board of Education Chairwoman Donna Lane stressed that the $323,000 is not the school board’s money, because it cannot move money from one budget year to the next. Any decision on how to use the surplus is up to the Board of Finance.

A roller coaster ride

David Ferris, a school board member, thanked Lane for clarifying that the $323,000 surplus is not the school board’s money.

“As a board, I think we need to be very, very careful about what promises we make this year,” Ferris said. “Our intentions are all absolutely good with what we’d like to see, but we’re on a roller coaster ride here.”

Ferris mentioned the COVID-19 pandemic, the Presidential Election, civil unrest, rising enrollment and a recent court decision saying school districts must cover education costs for special education students until age 22.

“We don’t know what’s gonna happen, so I think if we’re sitting pretty in June, these are all good decisions,” Ferris said of the request, but he cautioned against making promises and spending money now, only to wind up in a deficit by June.

Ferris recommends standing pat until the end of the year.

“If we’re sitting on money at the end of the year, then yeah it’s open season, we can talk about these things,” he said. “But there’s so much uncertainty right now.”

Swimming in murky waters

To look at the big picture, Ferris asked if Board of Education members should be complaining if the Board of Finance decides not to return the $323,000 surplus to them, after the town had given the district $1.4 million over and above last year’s budget to close its medical insurance deficit.

“It’s very murky water you’re swimming in,” said Jerry Stevens, a board member and a retired teacher for Monroe public schools.

Stevens said 350 people were hit with three furlough days each, and they’re feeling it in their paychecks.

“This one’s gonna to be tough for me to swallow,” he said of any decision not to reimburse the teachers. Stevens said he understands how tough the economy is with people laid off, but added, “Monroe’s history is to go back to the teachers and push them down. And I can show you the history. I can go back to the 35 years I taught. And this is what’s tough. It gets hard for them to swallow every year.”

Stevens said this is not a one time thing with COVID. “It’s not a 100 year storm. It seems to happen a lot,” he said. “I wish it was just a 100 year storm. But I do hear you Dave and I appreciate that it’s tough.”

“I’m not saying no,” Ferris said. “I’m saying, ‘let’s be smart and hopefully we can have a conversation at the end of the year.'”

“It’s a rock and a hard place,” Stevens said of the situation. “It stinks.”

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