If the Walnut Valley Unified School District and the association representing its teachers can’t reach an agreement on furlough days, 30 to 40 layoffs could be on the horizon.
Superintendent Dean Conklin, flanked by school board Vice President Nancy Lyons, Clerk Cindy Ruiz, and member Phillip Chen, held a press conference today to share information about the district’s budget woes, stalled talks with the Walnut Valley Educator’s Association, and school safety.
Walnut Mayor Mary Su also spoke at the meeting, translating Conklin’s statement into Mandarin for members of the Chinese media and the public.
Conklin said the district is facing a $4.7 million budget deficit for the current year and is looking to furlough days as a plan to help close the gap.
District administrators agreed to a 3.26 percent reduction, which is equal to about six or seven furlough days. Now the district hopes the Walnut Valley Educator’s Association, which represents its 654 teachers, will agree to take six furlough days.
However, talks stalled recently and the district has requested that the state Public Employees Relations Board send in an independent mediator to see if both sides can settle the dispute.
Mediation will begin Jan. 7, the date district employees return from winter break. If that does not work, the next step in the process is fact finding, involving interviews with a panel of three from the state.
If the two entities can’t reach an agreement, preliminary layoff notices would go out March 15, Conklin said.
“We would hope to have a resolution prior to that,” he said.
Negotiations remain ongoing between the district and the Classified School Employees Association, Walnut chapter, so non-teaching workers are not affected by the impasse, he said.
Some parents asked if a strike might be possible, but Conklin called that “a very severe action” and said he didn’t feel it was likely.
Larry Taylor, Walnut Valley Educator’s Association president, said earlier this week that his group is opposed to furloughs because that means fewer days for students in the classroom.
“What the district has done is asked to go through the impasse process because of its inability to solve the deficit (issue),” Taylor said. “We’re willing to work with them, but we’re concerned with the impact of furlough days on the students.”
The district needs to come up with a long-term plan and not a temporary fix in the form of furlough days, Taylor said.
“There are ways to minimize the deficit and work on a multi-year plan,” he said. “It’s not going to go away with furlough days. It’s just temporary.”
Conklin said the district does have a plan for the long term that includes repurposing existing properties, keeping a hiring freeze in place, offering another early retirement program, and relying on natural attrition to create vacancies that won’t be filled. The district also expects, as the economy improves in the next couple of years, to see more the revenue coming into the district increase by a couple of percentage points, he added.
Earlier this month, the district announced plans to file what is called a negative certification with the Los Angeles County Office of Education. A negative certification means that a district will be unable to meet its financial obligations for this year and next.
“This is the first time ever for Walnut Valley and it’s sad,” said Colleen Patterson, the outgoing interim assistant superintendent of budget services. “You’ve hit your own personal fiscal cliff.”
Patterson pointed to deferred money totaling $22.2 million this year alone that the state owes the district as one of the chief reasons the district is fiscally in the hole. The state will owe the district $66 million in IOUs in the next three years, she said.
The district must get its finances in order or risk a state takeover, officials said.
Conklin said at the press conference that the district’s deficit spending has come from less money coming in from the state each year while expenses such as salaries in the form of step and column increases keep going up. That has meant that the district has had to rely on its reserves to make up the gap.
The district has cut $8 million out of the budget since 2007-2008, he added.
“Ninety percent of our budget is spent on people, so if we cut our budget, that means we cut people,” he said. “While the board and the superintendent in this district have made deep cuts over the past five years, every effort has been made to keep those cuts away from the classroom.”
Conklin also said that the district is “disappointed and concerned” that the WVEA leadership has encouraged teachers to engage in a work slow down by refusing to assist in any assignments and activities not called for in the labor contract.
District and school administrators plan to step in and serve as student club advisors if it comes to that, he said. Plans also include reaching out to the community for parent volunteers.
Conklin also spoke briefly about school safety in the wake of the recent mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Each school has a safety plan in place and the district is providing psychological support to students and adults as needed. All schools are safe, he said.
“The tragedy that took place in Connecticut last week has impacted all of us,” he said. “As parents, as educators, the emotions we felt have been real and we have been moved.”