“Jefferson Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility” Calls for Spending Cuts

A recent Jefferson Area Local School District union contract extension is not sitting well with some voters, following a failed property tax renewal levy. Jefferson Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, a local taxpayer advocacy group, has been especially vocal in its criticisms, The Star Beacon in Ashtabula reported on November 10.

The Jefferson Area Local School District Board of Education voted unanimously to approve recent contract negotiations with the district’s classified employees, who are members of the Ohio Association of Public School Employees (OAPSE) Local 419. OAPSE is itself a branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Led by Rock Creek resident Lorrie Accettola, Jefferson Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility has questioned whether district leaders are doing what they should to get costs under control. In an interview with Media Trackers, Accettola said his group is not comprised of “union haters,” as OAPSE might have voters believe. He said Jefferson Citizens for Fiscal Responsiblity’s goal is to help bring balance to the district’s finances by fighting what they perceive as cronyism at the negotiation table.

“Our school boards and administration have morphed into a body which prioritizes job protection for school employees, instead of education,” Accettola explained.

As part of its agreement with OAPSE, the school board agreed to double the value of life insurance for which the district insured all employees. Superintendent Douglas Hladek, who has been in charge of Jefferson schools since 2006, told reporters from the Star Beacon that doubling the value of employees’ insurance policies would come only “at a small cost to the district.”

OAPSE members agreed to temporary salary freezes and accepted a proposal to decrease the amount of health insurance premiums covered by taxpayers from 95 percent to 90 percent. The new contract allows public employees who work at least twenty hours a week to receive insurance benefits.

School officials argue that the agreement actually represents savings for taxpayers. While the district had initially assumed health insurance costs would increase by 8 percent annually, the new agreement is projected to halve the projected rate of growth.

According to data from home sales website Trulia.com and the Ohio Department of Education (ODE), the median Jefferson Area Local School District taxpayer pays an estimated $1,507.88 in property taxes annually. In 2010, the average teacher salary in the district was $52,170, a 5 percent increase from 2005.

Based on the district’s latest five-year forecast submitted to ODE, employee salaries currently account for 55.3 percent of the school’s budget, with benefits including retirement packages and health insurance premiums accounting for an additional 24.9 percent.

Without a tax increase or spending cuts, the school expects to begin running multimillion-dollar deficits within the next three years.

“The teachers union has been very successful in championing the rights and interests of its members,” said Accettola, who mentioned that he felt teachers unions were necessary when he was a college student in the 1970s.

But, he opined, the unions “have been so successful that the balance of power has been skewed heavily in their favor.” Accettola went on to note that the financial problems faced by the Jefferson Area Local School District and others in Ashtabula County aren’t unique, and are getting worse each day.

A one-year contract between the district and the Jefferson Area Teachers Association, a local of the Ohio Education Association, was approved in September. The contract included a freeze in teacher pay and increased teachers’ contribution toward their health insurance premiums from 5 percent to 10 percent, the Star Beacon reported.

In Star Beacon coverage of a recent school board meeting, reporter Carl Feather noted that the district’s fringe benefits are in line with those found in other public school districts – but failed to recognize that said benefits are very generous when compared to benefits received by the taxpayers who must foot the bill.

“It is time for the taxpayers to reclaim their voice in how their money is spent,” Accettola told Media Trackers. “Brought on by hard economic times, rising costs and greater union demands, the school boards must ‘dig deep’ to resolve this epidemic.  They must make some unpopular decisions.”

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