Tax group: Contract caused cuts

By Mary Thompson

News-Tribune staff writer

A Duluth taxpayer organization criticized the Duluth School District Wednesday for seeking public input on budget cuts expected for the 1999-2000 school year.

FIGHT Minnesota criticized plans to hold an April 27 meeting for parents, students and taxpayers to discuss the estimated $1.9 million shortfall.

"We’re offended by the superintendent’s plan to hold a public meeting," said Brad Bennett, FIGHT spokesman and former Duluth School Board member.

Fight criticized the April 27 meeting while at the same time calling for more public input into another district issue: upcoming labor negotiations with the Duluth Federation of Teachers.

Bennett acknowledged the paradox of supporting public involvement in labor negotiations while opposing such involvement in resolving the budget shortfall. But Bennett said FIGHT believes teacher wage increases caused the current budget shortfall and district officials alone must deal with the consequences of the contract they negotiated with teachers last year.

FIGHT’s criticism of the public meeting was part of a larger campaign to draw attention to the district’s next round of teacher contract negotiations, which begin in July.
The summer negotiations follow a bitter, 17-month battle over teacher salaries that ended last November. The district and teachers, who had threatened to strike, agreed to a contract that increased teacher wages and benefits 11 percent over two years.

The settlement, including benefits, cost the district $83 million more than the 1995-97 contract and pushed teacher wages and benefits to $56.1 million in 1998-99. The district’s 1998 budget was $104 million.

Bennett and others say the next round of negotiations could put the district further in debt. FIGHT believes last year’s "generous" contact settlement caused the current budget shortfall.

School District business manager Patrick Flattery disagreed Wednesday. He said declining student enrollment and a $1.8 million loss in state aid also contributed to the shortfall.

"The financial situation we’re looking at next year is caused by several factors," he said.

FIGHT’s press conference drew cautious responses from Duluth Superintendent Julio Almanza and Duluth Federation of Teachers President Frank Wanner, who will face each other across the negotiation table this summer.

"We continue to be hesitant to respond to FIGHT," Wanner said. "We have questions about their membership, and their funding sources are unclear."

FIGHT is a for-profit organization, which means its membership and financial statements are private.

Almanza said Bennett made several inaccurate statements, including his characterization of the April 27 meeting.

Almanza said school administrators will present a list of recommended cuts to board members and citizens.

"Brad Bennett misunderstands what that meeting is. The April 27 meeting is an opportunity for the public to hear what we’ve proposed and react to it, Almanza said. "We don’t do this in isolation."

While Bennett criticized Almanza’s plan to involve citizens in the budget cuts, he said FIGHT wants the district to make labor settlements public before the School Board approves them. When he learned that is illegal under Minnesota law, Bennett said FIGHT might lobby the Legislature for public disclosure.

Almanza had no comment on FIGHT’S lobbying plans. He was more concerned with the tone the organization was setting for upcoming contract negotiations.

"In my brief time in Duluth, I have learned that Duluth does know how to have confrontative [sic] types of negotiations. Your past is full of them," Almanza said.

"I believe our future is better served by collaboratively working together and not pointing fingers at each other," he said. "That’s where my efforts will be directed."

Contact Harry at: A1Snowman@aol.com