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Lanesville hopes third time’s charm at mediation table

After two tries at mediation in 2005 and 2006, the Lanesville Community School Board of Trustees, Supt. Phil Partenheimer and the Lanesville Education Association are headed back to try again.
The new mediation attempt comes after the school board, Partenheimer and the LEA have been unable to agree on details for a new health insurance plan.
Lanesville’s general budget has been declining over the last two years. The school corporation has spent $223,000 in increased health insurance benefits since 2006 for its teaching, secretarial and janitorial staffs while their general budget has decreased more than $25,000 during that same period. The total costs in premiums was almost $310,000 in 2005. This year the school is paying almost $432,000 for the same insurance plan.
‘We’re headed toward bankruptcy,’ Partenheimer said, if the school continues to have increased insurance costs and a lower general budget each year.
The school has lost 15 students since 2006. Next year, Partenheimer said, the school will graduate 56 students while they only have 38 kindergarten enrollments, which will lower their enrollment by 18 more. The sophomore class currently has 68 students, and Partenheimer said he had no idea how many new kindergartners would enroll the year those students graduate.
Teachers at Lanesville have not signed a new contract with the school corporation since 2004. Under Indiana law, the school corporation must continue to pay the salaries and benefits agreed to under that contract until the parties agree to a new one.
Vicki Martin, a state-appointed fact-finder with the Indiana Education Employment Relations Board, released a non-binding report last November with her recommendations for settling the school’s dispute on salary and insurance issues. Martin recommended a two-percent retroactive salary increase for teachers for the 2004-05 and 2005-06 school years and a reduction of the school’s contribution for health insurance premiums by five percent. Martin said in that report those recommendations were made in light of the school’s financial problems.
The LEA submitted a proposal for a new health insurance plan in January to the insurance committee formed under Martin’s recommendation to lower health insurance costs. The plan was not presented to the full five-member school board. The LEA claims the plan would save the school corporation more than $70,000 per year on health insurance premiums. However, Partenheimer said the plan was too expensive given the school’s budget constraints.
‘The current proposal we made saves the school corporation a lot on the premiums and saves us a little bit,’ Veronica Hobbs, LEA president, said last week.
The LEA’s plan conforms to Martin’s recommendation of a five-percent decrease in the school’s contribution to health insurance premiums and also significantly raises deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses for both single and family coverage.
Partenheimer said the two-percent retroactive salary increase for the 2004-05 and 2005-06 school years is something he does not have in his budget. He said the cost of that retroactive raise is around $100,000 and the savings of $70,000 wasn’t enough.
‘It still didn’t come to the $100,000 I need to give them their raise,’ Partenheimer said.
Partenheimer said if the LEA were willing to accept $30,000 less in their raises, the school corporation would accept their proposed insurance plan.
However, Hobbs said she did not agree.
‘The fact-finder looked at all their budget report that they gave her,’ Hobbs said, adding Martin came back with the numbers regarding raises and insurance premiums based on that budget report.
Hobbs also said some teachers were not on the school’s insurance plan, and if money came out of their raises to pay for increased health insurance costs those teachers would get nothing.
‘It’s not fair to them not to get a wage increase,’ Hobbs said, adding that she was unsure if the teachers could make any more concessions.
‘It’s typical once you give up benefits, you’re never going to get them back,’ she said.
Hobbs said she did not blame the school corporation for the school’s current budget crisis.
‘One thing everyone needs to understand is this is a revenue problem with the current legislature,’ Hobbs said, adding that she still felt the school could look for other ways to cut their expenses. ‘You have to look at everything, not just salaries and benefits.’
While the teachers have been working without a new contract since 2004, Hobbs said, the school has not cut back on non-contractual student services like ball games, parent-teacher conferences and supervising students at after-school events.
Partenheimer said wages and benefits (health insurance, Social Security, retirement, etc.) make up 88 percent of Lanesville’s budget.
‘When you’re looking to trim expenses, it’s awfully hard to find it in that other 12 percent,’ he said.
Under Indiana law the school corporation is not allowed to mix funds, and teacher’s wages and salaries must come from the school’s general fund. Partenheimer said he has continued to make improvements to the school instead of putting them on hold to provide student’s with better educational opportunities.
‘We’ve purchased things, but that money cannot go to teachers,’ Partenheimer said of the new gym, extra classrooms and agriculture building that were paid for out of capitol projects funds and new buses purchased with riverboat money received from the county.
Both parties said they are hoping for a positive outcome when Martin returns for another mediation session on March 6.
Hobbs said she feels the past mediation tries have been successful, and they’ve been close to reaching an agreement.
She said she thinks many of the current disagreements have been over what Martin meant in her fact-finding report released almost three months ago.
‘I’m hoping by bringing her back she can say ‘this is what I meant’ and clarify it,’ Hobbs said.