Sugar-Salem reaches labor agreement

SUGAR CITY — The school board and teachers union in the Sugar-Salem School District have reached a labor agreement — but a flap over $20,000 has the groups still at odds.

Teachers will receive pay increases of between 5 and 6.8 percent. They’ll also get added health benefits and a one-time bonus of $216 apiece.

The agreement came Tuesday evening, nearly four months into the fiscal year and in the wake of an admitted $403,507 miscalculation on the district’s part. Though negotiators say they’re glad the impasse is over, they still have questions about some $20,000 in district funds.

They say the district budgeted for at least one former employee who was replaced earlier this year with a younger, lower-paid individual. They also say the district appears to have accrued almost $20,000 as a result.

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

Sugar-Salem Superintendent Alan Dunn acknowledged that an employee died three months before the school year started and that a younger replacement receives about $15,000 to $17,000 less annually. But that doesn’t mean the district made money from the situation, Dunn noted.

“The teachers are looking at the budget, not what we receive in terms of allocations from the state,” he said. “We have received money for the new employee, not the old one.”

The disagreement surrounding the $20,000 comes in the wake of a major miscalculation on the district’s part regarding carryover funds, which triggered the months-long deadlock.

Sugar-Salem’s business manager Becky Bates said last week that her unfamiliarity with the district’s accounting software led to an oversight of some $400,000 earlier this year. (Bates made a similar oversight last year as well.)

As a result, the district presented a lower carryover amount to union members during initial labor negotiations this summer.

“It’s my fault,” Bates said last week. “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.”

(Bates declined further comment after Tuesday’s meeting.)

Last week, trustees and members of the Sugar-Salem Education Association resumed negotiations following an August audit that caught Bates’ mistake. Instead of a $403,507 carryover, union members were able to tap into a much higher figure to cover salary and benefit increases: $884,077, a carryover of roughly 10 percent of Sugar-Salem’s annual operating budget.

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

During Tuesday’s meeting, negotiators accepted the board’s counter-offer of $216 in one-time bonuses for teachers.

Despite accepting the offer, union members say the past mistake and the lengthy deadlock prove the district is in need of change.

“I’m gaining more and more understanding through this whole process,” said teacher and negotiator Tonya Johnson. “But morale here is still very low. If the district wants to fix it, there has got to be some changes.”

Dunn defended Bates and the school board after Tuesday’s meeting.

“This is not as simple as balancing your checkbook,” he said. “The process is highly complex. According to the audit, our business manager was right on — except for that one mistake.”