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Tough time to negotiate

Assuming Fort Wayne teachers ratify the tentative agreement reached with Fort Wayne Community Schools, we're about to find out what a contract agreement hammered out under extraordinary conditions looks like.

Teachers have been working under a status quo contract since last April. Negotiators knew then there were no additional dollars available and that sticking with their current contract was the best course.

What they didn't know then was that things would grow much worse:

-- The district must cut $15 million this year alone.

-- The Indiana Department of Education is threatening to take over two schools.

-- All of the high schools are going back to a seven-period schedule because of the budget crunch, forcing teachers who were teaching three out of four periods a day to instead teach six out of seven.

-- Teachers at the 11 schools targeted for improvement must reapply for their jobs.

-- The state is pressuring schools to freeze salaries and eliminate step increases.

All of that leaves the teachers union with little room to negotiate. They should also consider that there's no sympathy coming from Gov. Mitch Daniels. He lashed out at New Albany-Floyd County school officials Monday for proposing to close four schools, angry that he is being blamed for it.

According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, "Daniels said the district, in making its cuts, should have used a checklist created by the State Board of Education to find other savings before voting to close schools. Some of the suggestions on the checklist include freezing salaries of all employees, reducing the number of extracurricular activities, and eliminating or reducing staff positions that do not directly connect to instruction."

It looks like a salary freeze is the very least the governor is expecting from Indiana teachers, so any contract with increased benefits is likely to draw an angry response.

Daniels criticized the New Albany district for spending just 58 percent of its budget on instruction, compared to a statewide average of 61 percent. But he can't level the same criticism at FWCS, which spends just over 70 percent of its budget on classroom costs, according to the latest available data. Those costs include teacher salaries.

If Daniels is unhappy with heat he's taking over the New Albany closings, he probably won't be pleased to see the busload of Elmhurst High School supporters who reportedly are planning a trip to the Statehouse to protest the proposed closing of their school.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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