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GUEST OPINION: Of Windsor schools and budget deficits

Like many citizens of Sonoma County, the teachers of Windsor wonder what caused our school district's budget meltdown. Some accuse the district of fiscal mismanagement, and many are grateful that the Sonoma County Office of Education gave the Windsor Unified School District a negative certification and appointed a fiscal overseer to keep a closer eye on spending.

We now understand that overspending on personnel for this school year — not growing health care costs — was the main cause of Windsor's huge budget deficit.

The March interim report shows that the number of full-time jobs increased from 254 to 275 for this school year, despite a lack of income to pay for them. This led to the massive number of layoff notices.

Take a moment to consider how every Windsor teacher given a layoff notice lives with gut-wrenching uncertainty and fear for his or her future. I am speaking for them when I say we pour our entire lives into this work, and then you tell us we don't have a job?

Losing some of the best and brightest teachers in Sonoma County is a tragedy that will negatively impact the quality of instruction. Also consider our young teachers with families and how their health care costs will double just to maintain the coverage they have. We understand the need to address health care costs as a long-term problem, but it is inaccurate to blame health care costs for our $1.8 million deficit.

Windsor teachers were given wildly fluctuating estimates of the 2012-2013 deficit, which grew from $800,000 in late 2012 to $2.8million by this February. In an effort to prevent the Sonoma County Office of Education from giving the district a negative certification, the Windsor district took steps to cut its deficit in March by issuing layoff notices to 47 teachers, cutting programs including music and asking teachers to approve increases in class sizes. However, the county Office of Education realized that these layoffs and cuts could not be sustained without changing the teacher's contract. This situation prompted the district to receive a negative certification.

Once the district found itself on the front of the Empire News section of The Press Democrat, board members were quoted as saying that teachers should "do the right thing." The district falsely blamed the teachers for the deficit, claiming that our health benefits were the source of the deficit spending. Collective bargaining rules strictly forbid negotiating in public, but this is exactly what the district did by making these statements at board meetings.

Why did the district's deficit drop from $2.8 million to $1.8 million after the Office of Education took charge? The county-appointed fiscal overseer told the district to include about $1million held in a reserve account. This made teachers even more dubious of the district's funny numbers.

Although the district offered no cost-saving suggestions for administration at the bargaining table, Windsor teachers behaved like the adults in the room by approving increases in health care costs and class sizes, which closed $1.5 million of a $1.8 million deficit. Many teachers remain frustrated by this unequal power equation, where the district can overspend and then ask teachers to balance the budget on their backs after several years of pay cuts and increases in class sizes.

Our slowly improving economy has increased tax revenues, so we know more money will be coming back to public schools. We look forward to receiving these additional funds and bargaining over how our district can best use them to improve student achievement.

Jeff Reed is president of the Windsor District Educators Association and president of the Sonoma County Educators Council.


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