Teachers’ union responds to contract decision

MILL HALL — In a whirlwind 24 hours, leadership of the Association of Clinton County Educators announced they were rejecting the Keystone Central school board’s proposed, two-year district-wide pay freeze; district administrators and taxpayers reacted with surprise and criticism; and the ACCE countered with an official statement.

Tom Temple, president of the ACCE, notified the union’s members of the executive council’s decision via email Tuesday morning.

Later that day, the office of substitute superintendent Dr. Alan Lonoconus released a statement that the Keystone Central administration “was taken by surprise today when the news was announced by union leadership that they will not take a pay freeze in light of the current budget challenge.”

Further, the statement said, the superintendent had not had the chance to meet with or speak to union membership since he took office in the middle of last week.

“Dr. Lonoconus is still looking forward to working with the union through the budget process and hopes that their leadership is open to having further discussion,” read the administration’s statement.

Some online commentators who live in the district responded by criticizing union members for having high salaries and for not taking the pay freeze.

In response to the administration and the community, Temple released a statement on behalf of the ACCE.

“At this time, the leadership of The Association of Clinton County Educators cannot agree to open a regressive contract that we negotiated and settled in good faith as little as one year ago,” the statement reads. “In the time since this contract was settled the association has been asked on two occasions to take a pay freeze. In the recent past, the association agreed to and did take a pay freeze to ‘help out’ the financial situation of the district. It was the association’s approach that we would work together to help alleviate what we were told was a dire financial situation.

“However, the contrary was true. There was no financial need for the members of ACCE to take a pay freeze. In fact, the money saved from the pay freeze was used by the district to bolster the reserve fund, further strengthening an already strong financial position.”

The “reserve fund” is the district’s general fund balance, which provides the district with budget flexibility and control. It can buy time during financial emergencies and help districts avoid abrupt or significant tax increases. Keystone Central’s general fund, according to certified public accountants with the firm Baker Tilly, was considered financially strong between 2013 and 2015. Then, the district spent about $7.4 million of the general fund balance between 2015 and 2017. Now the reserve fund hovers around $7.3 million.

“Two years ago, the district received retirement notifications from 27 of our members, marking a pivotal time in which many funds could have been saved through attrition. In response to this opportunity, the action was taken to hire nearly 50 new teachers and create new programs. A move that was noted, at the time, as something the district could not afford,” the statement continues. “The reserve fund was on a downward trajectory and the solution in place was to spend down the fund balance. During the spend down, three out of five years resulted in zero tax increases, resulting in increased expenses and a decrease in revenue. Here we are, the fund balance has been spent down, as requested, and the employees left behind are being asked to take a 1 – 2 year pay freeze, depending on who is asking.”

The background of this statement is teachers negotiated a contract in late 2016 that allowed for a 3 percent pay raise on their base salaries every year for the four-year contract ending June 30, 2020. Before those contracts were negotiated, in spring 2016, the board adopted a $76.65 million budget that included a property tax increase, 20 new positions and two new programs. Clinton County property owners faced a 2.87 percent increase, Centre residents faced a 1.2 percent increase and southern Potter County residents faced a 3.2 percent increase.

“Decisions made by past administrators and board members are negatively affecting us all and have placed current employees in a position none of us asked to be put in,” the ACCE statement continues. “Currently teachers are working under an implemented zero-dollar supply budget. Many teachers are using their own money to purchase supplies for their classrooms. It appears this scenario may continue for an additional year. A situation many may not realize, as teachers have tried to work through the ongoing constraints for our students.

“The Association, in conjunction with PSEA, pledges to continue to work with the district to look at other options to help reduce costs. We look forward to the opportunity to continue communications with the district in the near future.”