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Fact-finder gathers information in NH contract stalemate

One side says it’s about dwindling revenue precipitated by declining enrollment, while the other says it’s about much more, including retirement buyout, the need for binding arbitration and a lack of respect.
Now a fact-finder with the Indiana Education Employment Relations Board will make a recommendation how best to settle a contract dispute between the North Harrison Community School Corp. and its Classroom Teachers Association.
North Harrison teachers have been without a contract since the 2004-05 school year. However, in accordance with state law, the school board has continued to pay them the same salaries agreed to under the last contract.
Cynthia Stanley, the fact-finder assigned to the case by the IEERB, heard nearly two hours of testimony on Wednesday, Aug. 8, the day before students returned to the classrooms at North Harrison. Many of the teachers and a few students gathered in the North Harrison High School auditeria to watch the proceedings.
Stanley said very little during the hearing, except that she would only be gathering information and to overrule an occasional objection by attorney Bob Cambridge, who was the only person to speak on behalf of the school corporation.
Cambridge referred to himself as a ‘cost-recovery person’ not a ‘bargainer’ who is ‘hired by school corporations who will put up with’ him. The attorney said that when he was hired by NHCSC during the 2004-05 school year, he recommended a cost restructuring plan that would last three to four years.
‘This (school) district was on the edge of being bankrupt,’ said Cambridge, blaming declining enrollment, thus less state revenue, on the school corporation’s diminishing financial resources.
‘When you lose kids, you lose money,’ Cambridge said, blaming $3-a-gallon gasoline on ‘broken dreams’ that has led to the loss of students. That’s because many residents in the North Harrison school district live in mobile homes, which are easy to move, so in order to increase their take-home pay, those workers are moving closer to their jobs in Floyd County and in Louisville.
‘This is really a nice place to live,’ Cambridge said, but Harrison County is among the highest in the state in home foreclosures.
Cambridge, who used the accrual system to establish his recovery plan for North Harrison that included a reduction of staff ‘only for financial reasons,’ said that method is better than the cash system preferred by Terry Troxell, who has 34 years experience with the Indiana State Teachers Association and a member of the team that presented for the NHCTA.
‘The problem with the cash system is you start out with a balance there,’ Cambridge said. Instead, by using the accrual method, the only concern is that less money is being spent than the amount being taken in.
‘We’re just now on the edge’ of seeing improvement in the school corporation’s finances, said Cambridge, adding that former NHCSC Supt. Monty Schneider was working with him to keep the school district solvent.
‘Recovery’ from years of greater expenditures than revenue began in the 2005-06 school year, he said, ‘but we’re not anywhere near done.’
Cambridge said the future will be difficult, though, as student enrollment continues to decline and because of the current state formula, which ‘is aimed at Indianapolis Public Schools’ and other large school systems but vastly affects rural school corporations.
The attorney admitted that North Harrison’s teachers are ‘entitled’ to raises, but it’s not a question of ‘willingness’ but rather ‘a case of ability to pay’ increased salaries.
But the Classroom Teachers Association contends that the school corporation has accrued enough money to finance the 1.8-percent salary increase it is asking for each of the past three years.
‘We’re not talking about a school that’s broke,’ said Troxell.
Teachers have actually earned less during the past four school years when the three-percent annual rate of inflation, along with the teachers’ increased cost of health insurance, is taken into account.
Carol Mooney, the ISTA UniServ Director, and Greg Rupp, president of the North Harrison Classroom Teachers Association, presented most of the information for the teachers’ side. Several teachers, as well as Veronica Hobbs, president of the Lanesville Education Association, also provided insight to their viewpoint.
Until March, Hobbs and the Lanesville teachers were in a similar situation as North Harrison’s educators are now.
Dr. Phil Partenheimer, who became North Harrison’s superintendent July 1, held the same position at Lanesville schools during that impasse.
But based on recommendations by the fact-finder, Lanesville teachers received a retroactive 1.5-percent raise for the 2004-05 and 2005-06 school years and a two-percent raise for the 2006-07 school year. The Lanesville school trustees then extended the retroactive pay raises to noncertified personnel employed by the school corporation. Negotiations are now necessary to obtain a contract for the 2007-08 school year.
‘We were only able to settle after the fact-finding came back,’ Hobbs said, adding that Lanesville schools didn’t go bankrupt and ‘the sky did not fall’ after the new contract was settled.
Following Lanesville’s settlement, Partenheimer said that school system was still in a tough financial situation at least in part due to decreasing enrollment over the past few years which was taking its toll on the general budget. Salaries and benefits are paid out of the general budget.
Mooney said North Harrison’s impasse is now 2-1/2 years old. It has been difficult to get a hearing, as one hearing officer recused himself and another asked to be removed.
And now that Partenheimer is the superintendent at North Harrison, Mooney said there are concerns that a settlement is further away, as Partenheimer ‘already has disagreed with some of the language items we’ve already agreed to’ under Schneider.
Mooney added that ‘there are many significant matters besides wages.’ She and Rupp summarized that the past few years have had an ‘atmosphere’ where teachers endured a lack of respect and being taken for granted.
Rupp said the board members ‘showed open contempt to teachers’ and now, under the new superintendent, the public can only speak to agenda items during board meetings.
Mooney said negotiations ‘seriously deteriorated’ in 2004 and a letter to Cambridge in April 2005 was ignored.
When Ron Snyder brought up the point about mediation on the teacher retirement buyout, Cambridge objected.
But Stanley allowed the point to be made. Mooney continued that as she tried to write an acceptable agreement regarding retirement, Cambridge found fault.
‘No matter what we did, he did the opposite,’ Mooney said. ‘There was a lot of unnecessary unpleasantness’ in the bargaining sessions.
That led to the filing of nine unfair labor practice counts against the school corporation.
‘We never said (the school corporation) was not on the verge of recovery,’ said Troxell, but based on his assessment of the finances, North Harrison’s financial picture was ‘a lot better’ by 2006.
‘Things were beginning to turn around on the backs of the teachers,’ he said.
Troxell said $522,000 is needed to settle the teacher contract. ‘Without touching the rainy day fund (that the school board implemented in the past year), there’s enough money to settle the contract.’
‘This school corporation is headed in the right direction financially,’ Troxell said. ‘I won’t say it was done the right way’ to get there.
It could take up to three months before Stanley returns a nonbinding recommendation as to how best to end the stalemate.