$400,000 miscalculation deadlocks Sugar-Salem negotiations

SUGAR CITY — A major miscalculation regarding carryover funds triggered an ongoing deadlock between the teachers union and a local school board in East Idaho.

Sugar-Salem School District’s business manager Becky Bates said Tuesday that her unfamiliarity with the district’s accounting software led to an oversight of some $400,000. A similar oversight happened last year as well.

As a result, the district presented a lower carryover amount to union members during initial labor negotiations this summer, contributing to an impasse that has now carved its way deep into the 2016-17 fiscal year.

“It’s my fault,” Bates said. “This is my second year, and I only had one day of training with the software when I came into this position. Going forward, it will not happen again.”

Teachers acknowledged Bates’ mistake — but said it comes at a high price.

Sugar-Salem business manager Becky Bates
Sugar-Salem business manager Becky Bates

“We know that mistakes happen, but the morale here is in the toilet right now,” said math teacher and labor negotiator Tonya Johnson.

On Tuesday, trustees and members of the Sugar-Salem Education Association resumed negotiations following an August audit that caught the major oversight. Instead of a $403,507 carryover, union members are now trying to tap into a much higher figure: $884,077, a carryover of roughly 10 percent of Sugar-Salem’s annual operating budget.

As a result of the audit’s findings, the teachers union bumped up its request for raises from 3 percent to between 5 and 6.8 percent and asked for bonuses of up to $1,200. The board agreed to fund the higher raise request but not the bonuses, stalling negotiations for the third time since June.

Union members say the district has plenty of money to pay for the bonuses, which they hope to receive in November. Trustees say that funds reserved for bonus payouts are much smaller than everyone thinks, due to insurance premiums and other costs incurred by the district.

Trustees told negotiators to consult with the district’s payroll and benefits administrator Angela Yancey for a detailed rundown of those costs. Yancey wasn’t at Tuesday’s meeting.

“Then I guess we’re in limbo again,” said Johnson. “I’ve got to do some educating and talk to Angela before we can make a final decision.”

Meanwhile, the school board approved up to $25,000 in pay raises for administrators prior to this year’s labor negotiations with teachers — something that has riled instructional staffers in the wake of the district’s claims of financial hardship during earlier negotiations.

The raises include an 8.84 percent increase for Sugar-Salem superintendent Alan Dunn. Last year, Dunn made $88,227. This year, he’ll make $96,024, about $4,000 more than last year’s state average of $92,045 for superintendents.

It’s also the second year that the parties were forced to rely on an audit to gain an accurate picture of the district’s actual financial status. Last year, negotiations in Sugar-Salem extended late into September, when an audit revealed the district had more carryover money than administrators initially assumed. As a result, trustees granted an across-the-board 3 percent raise to teachers.

Sugar-Salem superintendent Alan Dunn
Sugar-Salem superintendent Alan Dunn

Superintendent Dunn said the board offered to undergo an audit prior to negotiations this year but teachers refused.

“I think we could’ve been in a lot better place right now if we would have come to that agreement in the first place,” Dunn said.

Dunn also said that the administrative raises in the district represent a small fraction of the money needed for an across-the-board raise for teachers and that the impasse is largely a reflection of a clunky state funding model and declining enrollment in the district.

“We are 115th of 115 districts in Idaho in terms of property value,” he said after a prior negotiation meeting. “That makes passing a levy very hard here. Even a tiny levy can cost patrons a lot, whereas in Sun Valley, they wouldn’t even notice a difference.”

Last month, Dunn went before the state’s newly formed funding formula committee in Pocatello to lament the financial difficulties small districts like his face in Idaho. The committee is charged with rewriting Idaho’s complicated school funding formulas and is currently seeking public input.

Salary gaps in districts across Idaho are wide, and some have a much easier time passing supplemental property tax levies to supplement teacher pay.

The state’s funding formula currently funds districts based on students’ average daily attendance. Dunn has projected a decrease of 49 students in 2016-17, which will affect the district’s funding under the current model.

Sugar-Salem’s 2015-16 fall enrollment was 1,567, down from 1,583 a year earlier.

The next round of negotiations is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 25, at the Sugar-Salem district offices in Sugar City.