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Forest Grove teachers vote down five-day cut

School board will seek further reductions beyond the three unpaid days teachers agreed to

Forest Grove school kids won't be making up the three days they had to fool around in the snow this winter, thanks to a deal brokered between the district and the two unions that represent teachers and classified employees.

But the Forest Grove School Board isn't happy with the compromise. The district sought to remove five days from the school year in order to shore up a $925,000 shortfall in state funding for the district.

While classified employees voted to adopt the five-day cut, union teachers voted against the deal.

'We had anticipated more saving,' said Dave Willard, the district's assistant superintendent. Willard said because the district has already drawn its reserve funds down to around $700,000, the leftover shortfall after a deal to not replace the snow days and eliminate some site council spending to the tune of $30,000 or more will leave him looking for $600,000 in savings. Drawing all that money from reserves may not be feasible, which would push Willard to look at short-term borrowing.

The news didn't sit well with the school board, which has already moved to cut six days from the school year.

'I'm not happy with this,' said school board member Fred Marble.

Jeff Matsumoto, president of the Forest Grove Education Association, which represents certified teachers in the district, said his membership reminded him of the cuts they've already taken this year.

'We went into the school year giving up quite a bit already, cutting six days, another 4 percent in salary concessions,' Matsumoto said.

With an additional five days of cuts, teachers would be looking at nearly a 10 percent cut in pay for the year, with five percent of that cut squeezed into the last half of paychecks for the year, the kind of concessions that can create real cashflow problems at home.

Instead, union teachers voted to support only the elimination of the three snow days, which the district would otherwise have to make up.

Negotiations continue

School board member Ralph Brown said the refusal to cut days would likely force the district to make late-year layoffs.

'I can't believe teachers and classified people want to see three more people go down the road,' Brown said.

Brown, a former teacher and administrator, said he supported the unions, but felt the district could get a better agreement worked out.

Superintendent Yvonne Curtis said the district had already looked at suspending short-term contracts and considered late-year layoffs, but since the school year is more than half over, laying a teacher off now doesn't net a full salary, meaning the cuts to teaching staff would need to be deeper than if they had been made at the beginning of the year.

'We would have to cut really significantly into the teaching population,' Curtis said, a move she described as financially imprudent.

The board struggled to approve the deal, with an initial round of voting on the measure failing.

Willard reminded the board that if they rejected the deal he brokered, the district would be back at square one, with a $925,000 shortfall and $700,000 in reserves.

'We've been grasping for months,' Willard said of his efforts to find short-term fixes to the district's immediate budget crisis.

Next year, the board will be tussling with $10.7 million or more in cuts due to increasing expenses and dropping revenues.

Board members ultimately approved the deal, which means no further disruption to the school district's calendar. They directed Willard to return to the table with the teacher unions to try to get more savings.

'System is broken'

Under the contract the district holds with the unions, administrators are obliged to make up days called off for inclement weather, eliminating the cost savings of shutting down most of the district's activities for a day.

That measure ensures that teacher's paychecks don't fluctuate with the weather forecast, and makes sure students have time to finish the year's curriculum.

But the agreement allows the district to leave the snow days off the table, netting some savings from those.

Willard said the most recent budget crunch recalled the situation he saw 40 years ago in his first teaching gig.

'The system is broken and we need to figure out a way to fix it,' Willard said.