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Michael Waldron: Contract negotiations shouldn’t result in a district in deficit

Published 10:36pm Wednesday, April 11, 2012

First, let me disclose that I am the vice president of the Niles Community School Board. I’ve been on the board since 2007. This column reflects my personal opinions and does not necessarily reflect the school board’s position.

There is a gap between what the Niles Community School District receives from the federal and the state governments and the district’s expenses. Over the past four years since I’ve been on the board, the district was able to handle that disparity because of one-time infusions of revenue. In recent years, we received money from the sale of our school buses and federal stimulus money. That money helped balance the school budget, but now there are no one-time sources of money to keep Niles out of deficit.

The district’s principal financial problem stems from diminishing revenue from the state of Michigan. State money, which has gone from $7,313 per student in 2008-2009 to $7,162 per student in 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 to $6,846 per student in 2011-2012, is our main source of revenue. Niles schools multiplies the dollars per student times the number of students to calculate our state revenue.

Thus, that basic calculation of our revenue is also directly proportional to the official student count, which fell in recent years from 3,906 students in 2008-2009 to 3,857 students in 2011-2012. The New Tech Entrepreneurial Academy, all-day kindergarten, reopening Eastside and the Widening Advancements for Youth (WAY) reversed that trend for school year 2011-2012, but the school board cannot assume that the student count will continue to increase or even stay the same.

At the same time that revenues from the state have shrunk, costs for retirement and health insurance have risen. The district has little control of those rising costs.

The board and the teachers’ union, Niles District Education Association, disagree when or if the district will begin to run a deficit.

As of this year, the district has money in fund equity. All but a small amount of that will disappear by 2013-2014 with no changes to the contract. It will also disappear under the union’s proposals. Districts in deficit can do far less for their children than healthy districts.

For that reason — alone — Niles will not go into deficit.

At board meetings, union leaders have questioned the administration’s calculations. However, the union has not yet furnished the formula behind the union’s assertion that we will not go into deficit without changes in the teachers’ contract.  I join the other members of the school board who asked the union at the March 5 school board meeting to “show us the math.”

Niles isn’t alone in Michigan. School districts all over the state are in danger of going into deficit. At least 41 districts were in deficit as of September 2011. Many more will go into deficit soon without significant budget changes.

The board’s last proposal, which can be viewed by the public at http://nilesschools.schoolwires.net/nilesschools/site/default.asp (click on the union contract negotiations icon), includes a revenue-sharing provision. If the state increases funding per student or the student count goes up, members of the teachers’ union would receive 50 percent of that increase.

It’s good business practice to safe-side budgets so that the school district doesn’t overspend. If the assumptions of the board prove to be too conservative and our enrollment increases or the state provides more money per student, teachers’ salaries will automatically go up.

Members of the teachers’ union would also suffer 50 percent of any future reductions in state funding.

There has been some undisciplined talk recently. For instance, Katherine Elsner, the local teachers’ union president, was quoted in a Feb. 20 article in the Niles Daily Star: “‘We wanted to remind the board that their last best offer’s overall impact is more than just a 7 percent or 8 percent decrease in pay; it also includes insurance costs,’ teachers’ union President Katherine Elsner told The Star. ‘That impacts the community as a whole. For every dollar we make, we spend about $1.50 in the community.’”

I am puzzled by how teachers can spend 50 percent more than their salaries in the Niles community. Maybe that was a misquote or simply an exaggeration.

Other people have accused the board of being anti-teacher. That’s simply not true. I have never heard a single disparaging word about teachers from other members of the board or the administration.

I admire teachers very much and in college I wanted to be a teacher. I did student teaching at the University of Michigan High School and received my temporary teaching certificate in 1968. However, fate took me into the Army, where I served 24 years. I decided not to pursue teaching after I left the Army; however, I continue to admire teachers. I doubt that I could handle all the pressures that teachers must bear in today’s environment.

The last thing I wish is to add more burdens on teachers. As much as I admire teachers, my higher purpose on the board is to improve the education of children.

In my judgment, if the district were to go into deficit, the board would be forced to allocate fewer resources to our children.

I will not vote for a contract that will put this district in deficit because that would be a vote against the interests of our children.

  • Concerned Parent

    Mr. Waldren,

    I certainly don’t want my families school district to go into deficit, but I feel that this propaganda campaign by the school board and superintendent is hurting our district. I also feel that this ‘propoganda war’ being waged on our teachers is somewhat less then honest and definantly divisive. You say that you don’t wish more burdens on teachers, but yet that is what your proposal appears to do to our teachers financially.

    I find it hard to believe that while other districts have given teachers small raises our district needs such a draconian pay cut to the people on the front-line of the education of our children.

    I have heard many rumors and a lot of people question the rampant nepotism and pet projects of the board/superintendent. Maybe you could alleviate some of my concerns by answering these questions:

    1. Was the school boards president’s wife recently promoted to a well paid administrative position?

    2. Was another administrative job created for and then filled by the superintendent’s wife? I heard that she was recently hired by the district but can’t find it located on the districts website, why is this?

    3. Is another position being created for the superintendent’s daughter? Are there any other family members of the board or superintendent that we should know about that are not employed that are looking for jobs? This could be one reason why money is tight, could it not?

    4. BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY, how can you claim money is so tight yet be spending millions of dollars on facility renovations?

    5. I am assuming that money is so tight that there won’t be any other expensive renovations this summer, is this true?

    6. Can we get an honest answer to what it costs for opening up new schools, renovating other schools, and hiring new administrators?

    Please alleviate some of my concerns by answering all of these questions.

  • Concerned Parent

    Wouldn’t it be just a major slap in the face to the teachers if they are forced to take on this financial hardship and then money magically appears for another multimillion dollar renovation of a small part of the high school?

  • MichaelWaldron

    Dear Concerned Parent:

    Thank you for your questions. I’d be glad to answer any questions you might have. Please call me (I’m in the phone book) or e-mail me at mike.waldron@nilesschools.org. Of course, that offer applies to anyone who has questions about the school system.

    Michael Waldron

  • MotherOf4

    Mr. Waldron,

    Thank you for the very clear and detailed explanation of the financial challenges faced by our school district.

    It is important that our schools not go into deficit. There are no guarantees about what other economic challenges the community may face before the economy turns around. We are in the business of educating our children, our greatest resource for the future.

    As such, we need to be fiscally responsible so that we can continue to succeed in this area.

    Difficult economic times call for difficult decisions. I, for one, commend you on your fortitude.

  • Buster

    The bigger picture is who we voted into office at the state level. Our Govenor, just like other ones are trying to break the unions and their living wage. So starve the schools, and make the school boards be the bad guys. People need to educate themselves and quit voting against their best intrests. I support the teachers and the union!

  • dylan_c22

    I will start off by saying I am not for or against the Teachers or the School Board. I feel as though many people are confused about the money being spent by the District on New Tech or Eastside or any other building renovations or improvements. The key to the building improvements is that the money used for those projects are coming from the District’s “sinking fund”. School Districts are not allowed, by law, to use those funds on any salaries or benefits. They must be kept seperate from the District’s operating funds. Again, this is what is mandated by law.

    Secondly, while nobody ever wants to take a reduction in salary or benefits, people need to be reminded that common sense must be used. Anyone who disputes that the tax base in Niles, as well as the State money sent to schools is not much lower than it has been in the past, are simply living in a fantasy world. Its a reality. If our family income goes down, each one of us has to look at what we are spending and find what cuts need to be made, until our income goes back up. This same factor is obviously applied to corporation and school district’s as well.

    I think the fact the district is willing to share whatever increase in revenue with the Teachers Union 50/50 should be a no-brainer. If enrollment and revenue goes up, the teaschers union gets to share in that success. Who would think that is not fair?

    The Unions in this Great Nation of ours need to stop trying to cause ill-will between its members and the company the members work for. Its a disgrace to see constant fighting. Everyone needs to grow up, use common sense, and take the offer the school has given and let the members of the union vote on it. If the union MEMBERS vote it down, than you continue to negotiate. If the union MEMBERS vote for it, than this is a done deal.

    Has the union MEMBERS even had a chance to vote on the contract yet? From what I understand, it has not been. I have only heard that the Union LEADERS have said no to the contract. When will the actual union MEMBERS get a chance to vote?

  • Concerned Parent

    Mr. Waldren,

    These concerns are not just mine, they are my friends concerns also. I guess that since it doesn’t fit your narrative your were unwilling to answer six basic questions. This just reaffirms my belief that this is nothing but a propoganda campaign.

    dylan_c22
    I was hesitant to see that the district borrowed $2 million against our sinking fund balance last year. That money is intended for general maintanence. I was encouraged to see that they were going to use $600,000 to improve the lighting throughout the district. This was not done. The money instead went to other expensive renovations. Since they borrowed against the sinking fund balance and have to pay that off in the next four years, how do you think they are going to pay for the next round of renovations? Here is a hint, more money will be shuffled coming from the cuts that they are trying to impose on my kids’ teachers. The sinking fund balance was an excuse last year, but it can’t be an excuse for what I would expect to be this years multimillion dollar renovations.

    Mr. Waldren,
    It is sad that the citizens of Niles have lost so much faith in the board. We are told one thing one year: Eastside must be closed cause it costs too much to stay open, then the next year we are told we are saving money by reopening Eastide. We are told the board is going to borrow $2 million for this list of projects, but yet only New Tech is completed and ran over budget. Now we are told that there is no money, yet there are plans for expensive renovations. Here is a suggestion, be honest with us parents.

    It is insulting to us when you belittle our inteligence with this propoganda.

  • MichaelWaldron

    Dear Concerned Parent:

    I haven’t heard from you yet. I still would like to answer your questions.

    Michael Waldron

  • Concerned Parent

    Mr. Waldren,
    This is coming from more then one family, and I do not want my children to be ostracised and labeled as coming from a troublemakers family. Why can’t you just answer these questions publicly (if they are not embarrassing)? You had no problem writing this piece publicly.

  • MichaelWaldron

    Dear Concerned Parent:

    I don’t discuss district matters in the press with an anonymous person. By the way, my name is Waldron not Waldren.

    If you want to learn the answers to your questions, please call or e-mail. I’ll keep your identity confidential.

    Michael Waldron

  • Concerned Parent

    Mr. Waldren,
    You say you don’t discuss district matters in the press, yet that is what you did with this letter to the editor. I had six simple questions regarding what you wrote in the press, yet you refuse to answer them in the press. Don’t you find this at least a little ironic?

    You tote the ‘board’s line’ yet are unable/unwilling to answer six basic questions. I understand there are two sides to a story, so why are you unwilling to even address the other side? Do you want us to believe your side of the story without asking questions?

  • GregOToole

    Dear concerned parent,

    Mr. Waldron’s explanation of the issues facing our district are true and
    As required by law, available for public information on the district’s
    Website. I am also on the school board and would be happy to address
    your issues:

    1. Was the school boards president’s wife recently promoted to a well paid administrative position?

    No, Mrs. Curry was re-hired by the District because of her qualifications
    in the area of special education. She worked for the District before
    Mr. Curry’s involvement with the board.

    2. Was another administrative job created for and then filled by the superintendent’s wife? I heard that she was recently hired by the district but can’t find it located on the districts website, why is this?

    Mrs. Weigel does not work for Niles Community Schools.

    3. Is another position being created for the superintendent’s daughter? Are there any other family members of the board or superintendent that we should know about that are not employed that are looking for jobs? This could be one reason why money is tight, could it not?

    No. None of Mr. Weigel’s children are permanent employees for the
    District. His daughters have substituted for teacher vacancies but have
    No intention of becoming full time employees. There are many families
    In the District who have multiple family members working for the District.
    This is characteristic of small communities. None of these positions were granted by this administration because of a pivilage of relationship.

    4. BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY, how can you claim money is so tight yet be spending millions of dollars on facility renovations?

    Money that is being used for renovations is obtained via the District’s
    sinking fund. These funds are restricted for use solely for facilities.
    They can not be used for wages or general fund allocations.

    5. I am assuming that money is so tight that there won’t be any other expensive renovations this summer, is this true?

    There are plans continuing for the next phase of New Tech and upgrading lighting across the district. New Tech attracts students to our system and increases state revenues and provides extraordinary opportunities for our children. The lighting upgrades will save money ove time to reduce the impact on the general fund for utility expenses. Again, none of these funds can be used to lessen the burdens of our general fund. But improvements to our facilities do attract people to our community.

    6. Can we get an honest answer to what it costs for opening up new schools, renovating other schools, and hiring new administrators?

    Yes, both Mr. Waldron’s comments and mine are honest answers with no intent to enflame or degradate the situation facing our Community and our School District. Eastside closed based upon the information provided the board by Mr. Law before he retired. After we started the next school year, it became abundantly clear that it had been a bad decision. Rather than place children back in Eastside in poor conditions, community members joined together and provided the manpower to renevate the first floor a step that saved the District greatly.

    I hope I have helped your understanding on these matters. Because I only know you as “ConcernedParent” I won’t know that you are attached to this ID if you would like to email me at Greg.otoole@nilesschools.org

  • Community_Advocate

    Mr. O’Toole,
    Since you were kind enough to answer the questions that Mr. Waldron refused to answer, I was hoping that you might also clarify one of your responses. You said that Mrs. Weigel does not work for Niles Community Schools. That may be true, but could you please clarify by answering this follow-up question: does Mrs. Weigel get paid by Niles Community Schools for any services that she might provide? Many people believe you may be side-stepping the question when you say she does not work for Niles Community Schools.

  • MichaelWaldron

    I initially thought that “Concerned Parent” just wanted answers to the original six questions. I tried multiple times to invite “Concerned Parent” to call me or e-mail so I could provide answers. I wouldn’t answer those questions in this space because they weren’t relevant to my column and I won’t debate an anonymous person. Now “Community Advocate” has asked a slightly different question. Each questioner implies that the school board and the administration has something to hide. As Greg O’Toole said, the answers are all public record. I invite both of them to go look it up.

    Here’s my bottom line: In 2008, Niles received 7313 X 3906 = $28,564,578 from the state. In 2011, Niles received 6846 X 3857 = 26,405,022 from the state. We must budget for 2.1 million dollars less. We must not go into deficit for our children’s sake.

  • Community_Advocate

    Mr. Waldron, my question required a simple yes or no answer. You certainly used a lot of words to avoid answering the question.

  • S.O.L.

    It is rarely a good idea to excoriate the messenger-
    The fact is we are a district nay a state in peril.I will tell you all a little truth,find a conspiracy theory in it if you will but I implore you to abstain.Mr Waldron has given you the facts and here are more the school board has asked the teachers to take an 8% reduction in wages which at the top of the pay scale is a $456.00 reduction monthly,furthermore the top of the pay scale is 67,500 yearly,to break that down over 12 months it is a $5472.00 reduction in salary,at a salary of 67,500 that is $5625.00 monthly on a 12 month scale and I might add the teachers work only 9 months a year,enjoy paid holidays,do not work weekends,spring break off,Christmas break off shall I go on? or have you heard enough.I am not delusional and am under no assumption that all teachers are at the top of the pay scale which only makes their contributions lesser.The next question comes to mind is it fair?NO it is not but then the devastation our community has experienced over the past few years let alone the past few decades.Yes like it or not this community save for the chosen hand full of individuals is poverty stricken,Do you suppose that moms and dads are working double shifts at Mcdonalds for kicks?no it is all that is left.Our manufacturing sector is decimated and that of surrounding areas in which historically one could go to in order to secure employment such as Elkhart are not much better.This may be a temporary hickup or a long term trend and good business sense tells you to hope for the best whilest preparing for the worst.The district is trying to ease us all into our new reality and yes poverty is our new reality and asking teachers and their unions to take some hits and frankly if given my drothers we would follow suit with Indiana and become a right to work state.This community has little to offer our youth anymore and it is a big world out there,a world they must venture into to become self sufficient because our community can not provide that for most anymore and to become succesful they will need the best of education we can offer them,thus the new tech and other improvements so do not fault the administration for seeking to give the children an opportunity.

    I ask the community to straighten up look around,disregard what your handlers on the evening news would like you to believe and witness the devastation we have,take a drive through our former industrial centers and tell me you can deny our problems which extend past the borders of our little town and into our state as a whole.It is time we buckle down and do right by our children and throw this blood sucking union under the bus and all those that suckle off of it.If the teachers do not like it we can find new ones and we will and soon when we by force of external pressures become a right to work state we will have the freedom to shed those unions for good,many of which that have helped bring us to our knees.Support this new superintendent and this school board,these conspiracy theories are ridiculous and little more than fodder to disract us from the issues that face the majority of us.

  • GregOToole

    Let me state this as succinctly as possible. Spin the issue in whatever manner you would like. Mrs. Weigel does not work or get paid by Niles Community Schools. Her husband IS paid for the dedicated and unselfish service he provides for our children. Mrs. Weigel’s only involvement with our system is when she volunteers as a parent in her son’s building.

    The issue that stands before us is the challenge to continue to provide an innovative and high quality education for our youth. We can’t do that in the manner in which we paid in the past. In order to survive the budget crisis that faces our State and local community we need to make adjustments now to avoid deficit in the rapidly approaching future. This isn’t a situation from our past where strong tactics encouraged employers to loosen a hold on a monetary surplus. We have none in surplus. A school system attempts to maintain a fund balance to offset the differential in fiscal years. The state begins on October 1 and schools on July 1. Fund balances allow the district to pay operational costs during this 3 month differential without having to secure loans. As an effort to lessen the immediate burden the last offer to the teachers included a signing bonus that will deplete much of our fund balance. But allowing the district to start to stabilize a currently structurally deficit budget. It’s not a total repair but there is a hope to grow with the new educational initiatives being installed by a progressive Superintendent. Given time, we may be able to turn a corner and reverse the deficit trend. New revenue was also offered in the last contract as a 50/50 split between the teachers and the District. It stands to reason if we pull together as a community; our town, schools, teachers and most importantly our children only stand to profit.

    I hope we all can see the logic in our situation and we can set aside the inflamitory differences and begin to work together toward a better future. If we can’t, there will be no future of success.

  • NilesVikingsParent

    Mr. Waldron,

    Why are you refusing to answer anyone’s questions in a public online forum, when YOU posted your opinions in the Letter to the Editor section of The Niles Daily Star? If you didn’t want to respond to questions, you shouldn’t have registered your comments in the first place.

  • MichaelWaldron

    I don’t answer questions posed by anonymous people because readers knows I am a member of the school board because I wrote that I was. Readers can evaluate what I write as a school board member. Nobody knows what axe anonymous people have to grind. The other reason is that the questions posed weren’t relative to my column. They were distractions, which I think, were designed to obfuscate the principal issue, which is the impending deficit status of the Niles Community School District. Except for the question about remodeling our buildings, nobody asked about finances. By the way, Gregg O’Toole answered each of the questions in detail.

    Michael Waldron

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