School Finance

IPS board approves bonuses for some support staff, while others await union vote

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
IPS will give bonuses to many support staffers and administrators. But AFSCME Local 661 has not ratified the contract.

Most of the staff who aren’t teachers but help keep Indianapolis Public Schools running, from principals to custodians and bus drivers, could earn bonuses of $1,250 this year and another $1,500 next year under a plan approved by the school board tonight.

The first round of bonuses will go to non-teaching staff who have worked for the district for at least 16 months. Newer staff will be eligible for bonuses next year.

But about 800 other support staff represented by the AFSCME Local 661 union, must wait for a vote on a tentative contract that includes the bonuses. AFSCME leaders did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The bonuses would be big paydays for employees who typically earn substantially less than the teaching staff in IPS — the bonus amounts are nearly 12 percent of the average pay for workers in the union, according to IPS. But they are only a short-term commitment. The contract does not increase base pay, and workers have no guarantee they will earn a similar bonus in the future.

By agreeing to the deal, union leadership passed up an alternative offer from IPS that offered a 1.5 percent increase in pay each year for two years. Those raises offered more security, but they were substantially less up front money than the bonuses, amounting to less than half the cash for even the highest paid workers over the first two years.

The district offered big bonuses or relatively small pay raises because the financial forecast for IPS is unclear, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said.

“We’re not able to project what our revenue will be and forecast out our ability to have higher increases in compensation over an extended period of time,” said Ferebee. “We wanted to ensure that we can get as much money into those individuals pockets as we could.”

The union’s contracts have not included base pay increases since 2010, but the bonuses mirror the deal from last year, which awarded $1,000 bonuses.

Only workers who’ve been with the district since July 1, 2014, with clean disciplinary records are eligible for bonuses this year. To earn bonuses next year, staff must have begun work at IPS before July 1, 2015.

IPS estimates that more than 2,000 staffers will be eligible for the bonuses. That includes the 870 workers the union represents, support staff and administrators such as building principals.

The deal also includes extra stipends of $500 for special education assistants, positions the district has struggled to fill in the past.

IPS estimates that the bonuses will cost the district about $4.5 million over the two-year period.

The financial picture for IPS is mixed. The district has saved money recently by cutting central office staff, Ferebee said. And it ended two recent years with budget surpluses of $4 million and $8 million.

But it ended the first half of 2015 will a deficit of $761,000. And IPS lost significant state aid in the most recent budget. Based on early estimates, the district expects to get $11 million less than last year, Ferebee said.

“IPS is providing all of this compensation at a time when we will have millions of dollars less in funding and state revenue,” he said. “We’ve made significant investment in our employees at a time when we have significantly less dollars.”

Payday coming soon

Pension paybacks for Detroit district employees may show up in March  

Thousands of Detroit district school employees may reap the benefits of a lawsuit over pension funding as soon as March.

School employees who worked for Detroit’s main district between 2010 and 2011 can expect refund checks in their mailboxes soon, district leaders say, but making sure the money ends up in the right place will be difficult.

The reimbursements are the outcome of a controversial move during Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration to withhold additional money from employees’ paychecks to pay for retiree health care benefits.

The Michigan Supreme Court upheld a ruling by the state Court of Appeals that the withdrawals were unconstitutional. As a result, the state is giving back $550 million to school employees with interest. The amount employees get depends on what they were paid at the time, either 1.5 or 3 percent of their salary.

While every district in the state is charged with handling the refunds, the Detroit district has a larger burden, tasked with processing 13,416 refunds totaling $28.9 million.

Some of the employees no longer work for the district and do not have an updated address on file, the district said, so employees have been asked to update their information by Feb. 28.

Another challenge: The district is trying to fill five positions in the financial department, the area charged with issuing the checks.

Jeremy Vidito, the district’s chief financial officer, said the state did not allocate extra dollars for additional support staff to help with the task, so the department is working overtime to process the checks.

“It’s prioritizing,” he said. “So there are items that we are going to push back to make sure this happens. It’s also … asking people to do more with less.”

Despite the challenges, the district said it plans to begin mailing checks starting the third week of March.


heated discussion

Aurora budget talks devolve into charter school spat

Aurora Public Schools board of directors and Superintendent Rico Munn, center.

Aurora isn’t facing major budget cuts, and school board members don’t have any significant disagreements with their superintendent’s budget priorities, but that didn’t stop a school board meeting this week from turning into a heated back and forth. At issue: the impact of charter schools, how new board members got elected, and what that says about what the community wants.

Four of the seven school board members were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate, sometimes speaking against charter schools. Many have been wondering what changes the new board will bring for the fifth largest district in the state, and Tuesday’s discussion shined a light on some rising tensions about different priorities.

The budget discussion was the last agenda item for the school board. District staff and Superintendent Rico Munn intended for the school board to provide guidance on whether their proposed budget priorities were the right ones.

Union-backed members who were sworn in in November pressed the superintendent and staff to talk about how charter schools would impact the district’s long-term finances.

“What I’ve always said is that charter schools have a negative impact on our financial model,” Munn said.

Veteran board member Dan Jorgensen asked Munn to clarify his statement.

“I don’t say necessarily it’s negative to the district, I say it’s negative to our financial model,” Munn said. “I just think that’s a fact.”

Then the conversation turned to the community. Board member Monica Colbert, one of the longer-serving board members, said the district is changing whether or not the board agrees because the community is demanding something different. The community “came out in droves” asking for the DSST charter school, she said.

Board President Marques Ivey, who was elected in November, disagreed.

“Not (to) this group that was voted in, I guess,” Ivey said. “I have to look at it in that way as well.”

Jorgensen supported Colbert’s argument.

“I think often times our perspective is also skewed by who we engage with, of course,” Jorgensen said. “But we need to be mindful we are here to represent our whole community.”

He added that a small fraction of Aurora’s registered voters voted in the school board election, saying, “there’s no mandate here at this table.”

When Ivey tried to dispute the numbers, Jorgensen continued.

“It’s not a debate,” he said. “That’s not the point. No one sits here based on — I mean there’s a lot of factors that contributed, like half a million dollars behind us or this or that.”

November’s election included large spending from the union and from pro-reform groups. The union slate of board members raised less money on their individual campaigns, but had the most outside help from union spending, totaling more than $225,000.

“I’m not going to let you get away with that shot,” Ivey said, stopping Jorgensen.

Then another board member stepped in to change the subject and ask for a word change on Munn’s list of budget priorities.

The district isn’t expecting to make significant budget cuts this coming school year, but in order to pay for some new directives the school board would like to see, district staff must find places to shrink the budget to make room.

The proposed priorities include being able to attract and retain staff, addressing inequalities, and funding work around social, emotional and behavioral needs. More specifically, one of the changes the district is studying is whether they can afford to create a centralized language office to make it easier for families and staff to access translation and interpretation help. It was a change several parents and community members showed up to the meeting to ask for.

Board members did not have major objections to the superintendent’s proposed priorities.

During the self-evaluation period at the end of the meeting, board member Kevin Cox said things aren’t as bad as they look.

“We’re building cohesion despite what may seem like heated discussions,” Cox said.

Things could be worse, he added – he’s heard of other groups getting in fist fights.

Correction: A quote in this story was changed to remove an expletive after Chalkbeat reviewed a higher quality audio recording of the meeting.