A $1 million accounting error has ignited long-simmering tensions between the Manhattan Beach Unified School District and its teachers union.
Parents, teachers and students lambasted the school board and district staff at a Wednesday night board meeting over their alleged lack of transparency, treatment of teachers and a laundry list of other concerns. A few called for the superintendent’s resignation.
“This is the most hostile working environment in my 12 years of teaching,” said Mira Costa High School teacher and former union President Karl Kurz.
The relationship between the district and the Manhattan Beach Unified Teachers Association has teetered on the brink of collapse the past couple of years as the groups wrestle over contract negotiations.
Last year, the union filed a charge with the Public Employment Relations Board stating that the district refused to provide financial data needed by the union to properly represent its members and did not negotiate in good faith. The parties are awaiting a formal PERB hearing.
But the focus of the crowd’s anger Wednesday night was a recent letter sent out by Superintendent Mike Matthews stating that the district had made a $1.03 million budgeting error.
Expenses for the district’s iPad, wireless technology and other programs in 2011-12 and 2012-13 incorrectly came out of the general fund instead of designated capital project and developer fee funds, Matthews wrote.
“Thus, over two years, the general fund was depleted by $1.03 million when the funds to improve facilities (Fund 25 and 40) should have been depleted by that amount,” he wrote.
Matthews said the problem would be remedied by the board’s action to restate the general fund ending balance in 2012-13 and beginning balance in 2013-14, resulting in a $1.03 million increase to the general fund.
The teachers union’s president argued that the district “manipulated” its funds to avoid giving teachers raises.
Matthews noted that the teachers union had been asking about iPad and wireless expenditures for some time, but the district had not seen the discrepancy until recently.
District staff Wednesday apologized for the error, before attempting to explain how it occurred.
“This is much like having multiple checking accounts,” said Deputy Superintendent Rick Bagley, “and making a purchase out of one when you intended to make a purchase out of the other. That’s what this is. … No money was lost, no money was found, no money was taken. We’re talking about expenses assigned to the wrong account. We found it, we’re taking steps to correct it, and we’ve also taken steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
But the accounting error proved the final straw for an already fractured relationship.
One by one, parents, teachers and students chastised district staff for more than an hour Wednesday night.
“The reality is, if we have been lied to about this number, who knows what else is lies,” said Mira Costa High School senior Brian Martin. “Were the teachers lied to about other things when negotiating their contracts? Were the students, like me, lied to when I found out last year that the district didn’t have enough to pay for my French teacher or my art teacher?
“In the private sector, if an employee gets careless with 1 million dollars and puts the company in jeopardy due to his incompetence, he would be fired.”
Rows of people held up signs reading, “Trust. You have lost it.”
A few parents, however, defended Matthews and his response to the error.
Ann Marie Whitney, a former CPA, said Matthews’ letter was “forthright, clear and honest.”
“There were accounting errors, but they don’t impact your bottom line,” she said.
Former school board member Nancy Hersman told the unruly crowd that she was appalled by their comments. She attempted to defend district staff but was continuously cut off by audience members.
Matthews told the crowd that it hurts to hear the public had lost trust in district officials.
“I don’t like that teachers don’t feel supported or respected. … Negotiations over the last two years have been the most difficult I have experienced. We have work to do. … I know it’s a significant thing to understate our beginning balance by a million dollars. I hear you loud and clear. I am sorry.”
MBUTA President Shawn Chen said the district “lied” when they said they could not afford teacher raises because they were deficit spending.
“They are not deficit spending if a million more dollars is in that fund than they previously thought,” she said. “This ‘mistake’ artificially depletes the general fund and makes it seem that there is not enough money for a fair, negotiated settlement.”
The district and teachers union will have another mediation session May 2, Chen said.
Mira Costa High junior Sachin Deepak asked the administration and teachers Wednesday night to move forward and come to an agreement for the sake of the students.
“It’s a sad day when teachers are forced to shut their doors to students due to stagnant negotiations, but it’s even worse when that day turns to a week and that week escalates to months,” he said. “As a student, the teacher is the key to the door to success. … Because of ongoing negotiations, students aren’t receiving full access to the teachers.” (Read the whole story here)