There are four bargaining units whose contracts are not settled at the Van Buren Public Schools, a looming June 30 deadline for creation of a balanced budget, and a projected $5 million deficit for next year.
So, on Monday the School Board hired a special negotiating attorney to get the contracts settled so the district will know what its expenditures will be in 2011-12.
Contracts still to be settled are Food Service, Administration, Secretarial, and VBEST support employees.
After an hour-long closed-door session on “negotiations” Monday evening, the board voted unanimously to hire John L. Gierak of the law firm of Clark Hill to be the negotiating attorney. He will be paid $230 per hour.
This is in addition to the district’s present law firm of Collins & Blaha, which will continue to serve the district in all other matters.
Board President Martha Toth said Gierak will fast-track union negotiations.
She said the need is urgent and now is not the time to go out for bids. She said it would be appropriate for the board to bid out professional services in the future.
Board Trustee Scott Russell said if the board didn’t bring on an additional law firm, Collins & Blaha would be doing the negotiating, so this is just trading costs, not an addition.
President Toth agreed, adding, “We hope to move faster this way.”
Gierak, with cum laude degrees from the University of Michigan and Harvard, is the co-chairman of Clark Hill’s Education and Municipal Practice Group. He has been listed in “Best Lawyers in America” since 2005 and has been named in “Michigan Super Lawyers” as one of the top 100 lawyers in the state since 2007.
Toth said Gov. Rick Snyder has proposed a $470 cut in state foundation allowance per student and the governor said if employees pay 20% of their health care costs, the districts will be fine.
But, she complained about him planning to divert money from K-12 to community colleges, which creates the need to cut K-12.
Toth said she went to State Rep. Dian Slavens’ coffee hour that morning in Belleville and found an “unruly mob,” with many people angry about the governor’s proposed cuts. She wasn’t able to talk to Slavens about the school district problems.
Business Office Consultant Mike Dixon gave the board an update on finances for the district, noting 83% of the district budget is in salary and benefits and if the district could cut 12-15% of the salary and benefits, it would take care of the deficit.
Dixon noted Gov. Snyder will present his education proposal on April 7 and he still has to get his budget proposal through the House and Senate. Nothing is final, yet, he said.
Trustee Russell said it would be prudent to prepare for the worst.
Toth said she worries that the governor may not be able to convince his own party to raise taxes and the district would end up with all of the cuts and none of the raises, so the cuts would be deeper.
She suggested board members write to State Senator Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, with their concerns.
Trustee Sherry Frazier suggested information be put on the district’s website so people in the community also would be informed before writing.
Dixon pointed to the five people in the audience and said if they wrote letters, it would have more impact in Lansing than if board members wrote, because of the board’s vested interest.
Dixon said the Center for Michigan website spells out the financial situation in Michigan and gives the public a chance to record what they would do to balance the state budget.
“We still have a chance to influence the debate” in Lansing, Toth said, urging people to contact their elected representatives.
Russell repeated that the board has to plan for the worst-case scenario and Dixon agreed, saying anything that is cut now can be put back in the future.
“We have to get ready for change,” Dixon said. “He’s going to change the way we do business. Change is coming. It’s got to come. We can’t go on the way we have been.”
Dixon said he would give regular updates on the finances, so the board will stay informed. He reported, it looks as though the current 2010-11 expenditures will be $388,429 over revenues, leaving a fund balance of $323,231 in June.
That fund balance will turn into a deficit of over more than $6 million, according to present best guesses. But, that all depends upon what happens in Lansing and how well the board’s new negotiating attorney does his job.
In other business at Monday’s meeting, the board:
• Approved $464,853 in change orders — field order alternates and bid pack upgrades — as recommended by Plante Moran CRESA for Belleville High School construction and was promised a board tour of the building project in April or May;
• Approved providing two school buses to Van Buren Township Summer Camp at the regular cost of $25 per bus per hour, plus $1 per mile. The program runs June 20-Aug. 19, with a week off betweens camps, July 18-22;
• Approved the requested Feb. 6 termination of Tina Stamper as cook/manager at Tyler, after 16 years of service, for personal reasons; and approved the employment of Amy Henry as a food service worker at BHS starting March 1;
• Removed from the agenda a proposed board resolution to borrow up to $2.3 million through a State Aid Note, in anticipation of state aid, to cover cash-flow shortages for the months of April-September to meet operating expenditures. This would be a line of credit to be drawn down as needed, reducing the amount of interest paid by the district. The resolution was not ready for board consideration and is expected to be on a future agenda;
• Discussed having a board retreat to consider how the board should be functioning, as proposed by vice president Bob Binert. He said the board needs to work together because, “We are going to have to make some unpopular decisions if we do not get concessions from our employee groups … We don’t want someone to come in here.” He referred to a financial manager sent by the state if a district is in deficit. School Supt. Tom Riutta’s office will look into low-cost or no-cost locations for a retreat and board members will communicate their availability for weekends in April, so a date can be set. The retreat would be open to the public; and
• Discussed a proposal to put the paraprofessional issue back on the agenda, but the clock clicked to 10 p.m. and the board said it had to adjourn, so it did.