Merrill School Board Tightens Belt Through Union Concessions, Retirements, and Cuts

MacIver News Service | April 19, 2011

Things looked bleak this March for the Merrill School Board. Like many of Wisconsin’s local school districts, the community was facing a steep budget deficit – over $2 million had to be cut to make ends meet in 2011. The worst-case scenario was apparent – up to 35 teachers and two elementary schools were candidates to be dropped by the district altogether.

However, it didn’t come to that.

Last week, the Board announced that they had been able to meet their budget expectations while limiting class sizes and saving 17 teachers from layoff notices. This massive reduction came as the result of union concessions, strategic program cuts, and staff retirements that will help the district adjust to the new budget without gutting important programs for students.

This included a district-wide salary freeze and increased health care and pension contributions that helped account for approximately $1.3 million in savings.

Teacher retirements played a key role in the savings, as the loss of six positions (mostly through retirement) saved the district over $420,000. These positions will not be re-staffed. Another $243,000 will be saved through reductions to the administrative and supply budgets.

Four teachers still technically remain on the layoff list in Merrill, but this can be attributed more to Federal Stimulus funding than the upcoming state budget. All four positions were created through one-time federal grants and would have been removed in 2011 even if the district were funded at the 2010 level.

These concessions have put the district on target to operate with their projected 2011 budget. However, other local educating agencies may have a more difficult time making ends meet. Part of this is due to the financial benefit of the state’s retiring staffers.

These retirements have become a common occurrence across the state in the face of higher contributions for health care and pension funds for teachers. Major districts like Madison and Oshkosh have extended their filing deadlines to allow extra time for veteran teachers to think about their career decisions. In many cases, this is a tricky trade-off for local schools. Retiring teachers allow schools to bring in fresh blood as a lower cost, but also take some of the most experienced teachers out of the classroom – assuming that these older teachers are still effective.

However, districts cannot rely on an exodus of older teachers leaving the profession in order to limit their costs. While this was a major boost in Merrill, it isn’t static enough to suggest that other districts will be able to make huge concessions in the 2011 budget thanks to retiring educators.