Empire teachers and district hit wall over raises

All Empire teachers want for Christmas is a 4.5 percent raise.

But for the third time in a decade, the teachers union and district officials have declared an impasse in contract negotiations.

About 75 people packed the Empire Union School District board meeting Thursday night, many carrying signs or wearing badges reading "Test scores up, salaries down."

Teel Middle School teacher Gene Guptill compared the Empire school district with the Miami Dolphins, once a dynasty in the National Football League but a team that has gone winless this season.

"These drawn-out struggles detract from our common goal of educating your children," Guptill said while cradling a football. "You need to find a way to turn this once great district around."

The 4.5 percent is a cost-of-living adjustment, which is added to all general fund dollars given to school districts by the state. Those funds are in turn used to pay teacher salaries. While school districts are not required to pass along the increases to teachers, it's common practice to do so.

District officials said their hands are tied by a roughly 15 percent decline in enrollment over five years, which drained $4 million in state funding from the budget.

The district anticipates losing more students next year.

"If we could open the checkbook and write the check, I know this board would do it," said board President Nicholas Bavaro. "We're trying not to have this district go into bankruptcy."

Superintendent Bob Price said it was habit for the district to give teachers cost-of-living increases every year, plus some. But enrollment took a sharp downward turn in the 2001-02 school year, making raises difficult, Price said.

"We have already cut so many programs," board member Loretta Stein told a grumbling audience of teachers. "I know it often appears like you are at the bottom of the list. All we have to do is find (the) funds. We will continue to look."

Empire Teachers Association President Dave Loucks said teachers have endured years with no raises before, but he believes the money is available for raises this year. Loucks saved his harshest words for Price, describing him as a "brick wall" with little desire to communicate with "the underlings."

"The school board is the ultimate boss," Loucks said, his comments followed by raucous applause and a standing ovation. "Oust the leader."

Union and district officials will meet Jan. 22 with a state mediator. If mediation fails, a neutral "fact-finder" can examine the district's finances and make recommendations on a settlement.

For now, teachers can only hope they'll get Santa Claus and not The Grinch.

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at mbalassone@modbee.com or 578-2337.