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Granite's failure to cut costs irking teachers union

If the Granite Board of Education won't cut costs by closing schools, perhaps it can't expect the teachers union to help bail it out next budget go-round.

That's the message the Granite Education Association sent Thursday.

The group announced it is starting to discuss strategies in response to the board's action, including getting involved in next year's school board races and no longer helping the board with tough decisions during annual contract negotiations.

"We're not out to punish anyone or be . . . negative about this, but we will convey to them a message," GEA President Jay Blain said. "We are not willing to balance the budget on the backs of educators in the district."

The stance comes as a blow to a district with no room to raise taxes to keep up with rising costs of doing business.

"Sounds like we've got a real difficult situation coming," said Martin Bates, attorney and assistant to the superintendent.

The school board's legal capacity to raise taxes is maxed out, Granite District business administrator David Garrett said. It also has no more room to ask voters to OK a property tax hike.

It could bond, but that won't help. Bonds must be used for buildings but not operating them, paying teachers or supporting educational programs. Annual building budgets also can't be used for anything else, according to law.

"We're not aware of any additional sources of revenue that can go for maintenance and operation," Garrett said. "Unfortunately, the biggest part of the budget is in employee salaries. So there's not a lot of flexibility. Utilities we can't control very much. There are not a lot of areas to cut but in programs or benefits."

The district for years has been in a tight situation, saddled with new costs ranging from $2.7 million in the current budget year to $7.7 million in FY03.

It has responded by cutting programs, staff and benefits. Teachers went two of the past five years without a raise.

Meanwhile, health insurance, fuel and utilities costs are rising. Teachers are in line for salary and annual "step" raises. The new Wright Elementary will open and could cost $300,000 a year to operate.

District leaders hope the Legislature helps it pull through.

But the GEA says the board could have freed up money by closing schools. The board decided Tuesday night not to do so, an action still subject to a Nov. 29 vote.

Last spring, the district reported spending $3 million to maintain 8,700 empty seats valleywide.

The GEA, in a Thursday statement, likened board action to fiscal irresponsibility that ultimately hurts teachers.

"We've realized in the past that at times, some of the fiscal problems are not their doing. Therefore, we've worked with them to resolve them while balancing the needs of our members," Blain said. "But when they directly have a chance to find that money, and they did not make the decisions to do it, I don't think they should come to us, the educators in the district, and say, 'We want you to tell us what to do about it.' "

The GEA also is talking about getting involved in next year's school board elections, much as the Utah Education Association does in statewide races with money and manpower, Blain said. The group has not done so in recent history.

The GEA's stand blindsided board President Patricia Sandstrom. She says the group asked the board to close schools, but some teachers also asked to keep them open.

"If you want to take and weigh them, all I can say is, I responded to those teachers as well," Sandstrom said. "We care very much about our teachers. I'm a former teacher myself. I know that teachers are underpaid. We'll do all we can do to help them. . . . I'm sure the association will have to do what they need to do as well."

Bates, often the district's voice in contract negotiations, said he understands where the GEA is coming from.

"I think we've worked very well together, and I hope we can continue to work very well together . . . to meet our collective goals," he said. "We all have the kids at heart."