Saturday, March 03, 2012

TOP STORY >> PCSSD negotiations restart cordially

Leader senior staff writer

Neither side is offering up specifics, but negotiators for the Pulaski County Special School District and its two employee unions will continue contract mediation at 10:30 a.m. Monday at the district headquarters.

Negotiators for the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers, the Pulaski Association of Support Staff and the district met for about four hours Thursday behind closed doors at the Arkansas Education Association.

The district is in fiscal distress in part because of a diminishing legal fund balance. And it would have ended this school year in the red if not for a one-time $15 million tax windfall.

The state Education Department took the district over in May, dissolving the school board and replacing it with a one-man board — Education Department Commissioner Tom Kimbrell.

It also fired Superintendent Charles Hopson and appointed Jerry Guess in his place.

Guess and PCSSD Chief Financial Officer Bill Goff want to cut the 2012-13 budget by about $13 million to increase the legal fund balance to about $8 million. District administrators have identified about $6.7 million in cuts and want to cut a similar amount from staff expenses to achieve the $8 million ending balance.

About 80 percent of the district’s $170 million budget is salary and benefits, so that attempt has brought the administration and unions into conflict, because nearly all the proposed cuts would come out of union pockets.

Guess says he’s still optimistic that he can negotiate successfully with the unions. PACT president Marty Nix told reporters after the Thursday meeting, “It’s a true dialogue. Everyone’s acting like grownups.”

The first bargaining session between PCSSD and the unions ended abruptly after 30 minutes last week.

The teachers have agreed not to take salary increases (other than step-grade and longevity increases) but Guess has said a zero increase doesn’t help cut $6.7 million.

The district also wants to consider policy changes that could save money, such as changing the leave policy, professional-growth classes, teacher evaluation rules and compensation for nonteaching duties.

The unions want to reduce cuts by aiming for a smaller legal fund balance and to cut central office staff and operating funds.

If mediators can’t help hammer out an agreement, the next step is for them to initiate a fact-finding phase.

But the district has an ace-in-the-hole with Kimbrell serving as a one-man board. If not satisfied with the mediated contract, he apparently could refuse to adopt it, decertify the unions as bargaining agents and, under state law, replace the unions with personnel policy committees, made up mostly by elected teachers and staff.

While the committees seem unlikely to give up all of the benefits, pay, policies and gains won by the unions over the years, many believe they will be more accommodating than the union representatives.

Teacher representatives to a PPC already have been elected.