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Cheney to SKEA: ‘The buck stops here!’
After several members of the South Kitsap Education Association expressed their displeasure with the South Kitsap School Distict board and officials, Interim Superintendent Bev Cheney told the group that “the buck stops here.”
Emotions from several SKEA members, including President Judy Arbogast, were felt through remarks made during public comments. The teachers union is upset with unexpected teacher layoffs and classroom sizes. About 50 people attended the June 13 special meeting.
But Cheney took responsibility for the lack of communication between the district and teachers.
“Have I made errors this year, yes I have,” she said. “Should I have communicated earlier. Yes, I should.”
Since taking over as interim superintendent, Cheney said she didn’t have an understanding of the things that transpired in the previous four years.
“I came in with three charges — levy, trimesters or semesters, and hiring a new superintendent,” Cheney said.
She admitted she didn’t fully understand the district’s reserve spending and the board’s policy of avoiding cuts from the classroom.
“If anyone needs to take responsibility for communication, it is me, solely me,” said Cheney, holding back tears. “I can’t fix what I didn’t do right the first time. My focus is — before I leave here — what can I do to bring this group together. We need to come together and move forward.”
Cheney said the only reason she came back to SKSD was the community and its people.
“Somehow we have to mend the rift, forget about what’s happen because we can’t change the past,” she said. “We can definitely move forward,” she said.
She assured the group that Dr. Michelle Reid is capable of leading the district.
“She (Reid) can lead you there, but you have to give her a chance,” Cheney said.
Cheney said better communication and interaction is needed within the district and that it will take time to rebuild trust.
“I know that, the board knows that and the people in here know that,” she added. “This district is too special to let this keep going on. We got to focus on the future.”
SKEA no confidence vote for CFO
Last week, SKEA sent out a press release announcing a vote of no confidence in SKSD chief financial officer Sandy Rotella. In the letter, Arbogast stated the teachers union is concerned about teacher layoffs and class sizes. She also reported an August meeting date was set to vote on the outcome of contract negotiations by ratifying the new contract or considering a strike vote.
Arbogast reported 88.9 percent of the total membership voted with 92.6 percent voting, no confidence for Rotella.
The current SKEA contract expires on Aug 31. The next contract negotiations are slated this month. If needed, they will extend bargaining days to Aug. 14-16, Arbogast reported.
School board member Greg Wall said this is an emotional time for the district.
“It would make more sense not to authorize a strike before you see your contract,” he said.
“It’s not a strike vote,” exclaimed some teachers.
“Attacking the CFO who doesn’t make policy is an emotional response,” Wall said.
Arbogast said according an OSPI report, SKSD’s expenditures have been less than what it received for the past five school years.
“Why was this a surprise to everyone in April?,” she said. “Where is the emergency?”
Rotella said the OSPI report showed actual general fund revenues, but doesn’t not show what the district moved from reserves into revenue.
“That is why it shows our expenditures are less,” Rotella said. “When the district made those decisions, the district reduced its expenditures purposely to build up the ending reserves to basically keep the revenue the district earned that year in order to sustain future years’ expenditures.”
SKEA, teachers address board
During public comments, Eric Pierson said he fully supports SKEA’s decision and he feels the district “blind-sided” its employees after voters passed a recent $22 million levy.
He said a district’s levy handout stated that 59 percent of the money is spent on teachers, textbooks and supplies, classroom equipment, teacher training, security staff, school office and health services staff, arts, athletics and after-school activities.
Pierson said he’s spent three hours analyzing the budget expenditure report and he feels that the 2011-12 budget includes about 10,000 line items, with more than 4,000 items that were over-budgeted, totaling more than $7.7 million.
“Did the school board ever review this line-item budget,” he asked. “The district’s chief financial officier stated the district can’t monitor every line item due to a manpower shortage in their business office. The district could hire a lot of accountants and teachers for $7.7 million. What I’m trying to say is that I consider myself a concerned citizen rather than a budget critic.”
Pierson left the meeting after making his comments.
School board member Kathryn Simpson said she looked at the budget line items.
“There were more than 4,000 line items that were over budget totaling $7.7 million,” she said. “There were more than 3,600 line items that were under budget totaling nearly $14 million.”
Simpson said people have to look at the budget’s “overs and unders” along with the programs.
Board member Greg Wall said he looked at the budget spread sheet which included items such as federal taxes, FICA and pensions.
“All the spreadsheet showed me is that Mr. Pierson doesn’t know how to run a business or know a lot about accounting,” Wall said.
He said the district has a professional CFO and the district is audited each year, including spot audits by the government.
“We not spending money like crazy” Wall said. “I have confidence in our accountant. If you’re not looking at the entire budget, it’s meaningless.”
Wall later apologized for his remarks about Pierson.
Teacher Kristen Crotson said she feels the “tone is different” this year and the relationship between SKSD and the teachers’ union is broken.
Confidence for CFO
Board member Chris Lemke noted SKSD has won awards for their budget 10 times during the last 13 years.
“There is only one person (Rotella) who has a certified public accountant degree and can look at a $98 million budget, looking at all those items and explain how the budget is put together and works,” Lemke said.
Lisa Johnson, a teacher in SKSD for 22 years, said she feels the meeting is about “damage control.” She said according to SKEA, over the past few years large amounts of money has moved from the general fund into capital funds.
“I don’t think we are being transparent about our monies,” Johnson said.
Simpson said the district hasn’t spent money on capital facilities, but on keeping teachers.
Simpson, who wrote an open letter from the board to the community, said she feels the information SKEA is putting out has been constructed to lead teachers toward a strike vote rather than giving teachers the full information they won’t understand.
Lemke noted that during a 18-month period, the district lost key members in leadership including superintendent, deputy superintendent, CFO and others.
“We had to hire an interim superintendent, interim finance person, interim human recourse person and our CFO was in her second year with the district,” Lemke said. “They had to learn to communicate with each other and they had to look at the budget and overall operation of the district.”
He added that Cheney had to come up to speed on what SKSD did under Dave LaRose’s time as superintendent.
“We went from an organization that was really good at communicating,” Lemke said. “But we didn’t communicate on time the urgency that was taking place.”
He said the urgency was that SKSD had tapped its resources to the “bare bone” and that Cheney and the new department heads were “saving money as much as they could.”
“This was the hardest decision she (Cheney) has made in 36 years,” Lemke said.
He said the total RIF (Reduction In Force) notices started at 61, but the distict is down to about 31.
Lemke said some of the displacement and placement SKSD had to make is because the district has to follow the teachers’ existing contracts.
He said the current contract has the district causing the “least amount of disruption in building as possible.”