Three percent budget increase results in potential cuts to next year’s faculty, staff, and programs

Ruby Ford and Katie Sisk

As teachers and parents alike received letters in the mail from the Benilde-St. Margaret’s administration this past week about next year’s tuition and budget plan, the reactions ranged from fear to relief, depending on the respective recipients.

The Benilde-St. Margaret’s Board of Directors set the tuition and fee increase to a total of three percent more than in the 2012-2013 school year––the lowest tuition increase in a generation. This three percent takes into account the combined cost of laptop fees and increased tuition.

Initially, the Faculty Advisory Committee proposed a 1.5 percent increase to the base of teacher salary, which would create a five percent tuition increase. The board rejected that proposal, requiring a tuition increase of only three percent, creating the $350,000 gap that brings with it concerns about layoffs for teachers.

“The challenge will be to balance being affordable, but then also being able to provide the excellent experience that our students have and to be able to pay our faculty and staff a fair and just wage,” Dr. Sue Skinner, senior high principal, said.

The most pressing issue caused by the financial gap is faculty and staff compensation. “The reality is, 80 percent of revenue comes from tuition and 80 percent of our expenses goes to compensation and benefits faculty and staff,” Dr. Bob Tift, BSM president, said.

The less the tuition increases, the less the faculty gets paid. “Our goal [as teachers] is to be about 90 percent of what a public school teachers would make because we want to attract and keep the best teachers here, but we can’t do that unless we are close in the pay scale,” said Ms. Paula Leider, English teacher and Faculty Advisory Board member.

The possible loss of valuable members of the BSM community along with the loss of the spirit of the community frightens many teachers. “I am worried about really great teachers not being able to teach at BSM because of their salary or hours being cut, so I worry about them as friends and colleagues. I am also worried that the general atmosphere at school is changing because this is really hard, and it is personal for every single adult in the building, and it is scary,” social studies teacher Ms. Amy Weisgram said.

Such fear stems from the oncoming changes necessary to fill in the $350,000 hole in the budget plan. “I think the faculty and staff’s awareness is heightened because it may mean that we change job descriptions; it may mean that we reduce our workforce,” Dr. Skinner said.

Many teachers are concerned not about themselves, but about the effect both on students and on BSM’s identity as a whole. “Personally my biggest concern is the negative impact it may have on students. Whenever you cut faculty or staff or programs, it impacts our students. I think we are losing a little bit of who we are with the budget shortfall and the implications that cause it,” Ms. Leider said.

The idea of sacrificing quality for cost confuses a number of teachers. “I question the logic when there are so many negatives that affect the teachers and staff and the students,” Ms. Leider said.

As the administration makes tough decisions and sacrifices regarding closing the budget gap, their main focus is to allow the best experience possible for the greatest number of students possible.

“It is going to be difficult, it is going to be painful, but we can make it work. We will do cuts in a way that it doesn’t diminish students’ educational experience by eliminating activities and classes that don’t have a lot of student involvement. As a result, I would anticipate that we would see layoffs,” Dr. Tift said.

The percentage increase in tuition will be lower than it has been in many years, but the Board wanted to consider the cumulative effect of larger increases on BSM’s paying families. “We have probably reached a plateau as far as what is affordable for families. We owe it to our families to change the direction we have been going since I have been here,” Dr. Tift said.

This especially takes into account the financial needs of middle class families as BSM begins to change its focus. “We want to make sure the school is affordable to families who want to send their students to Benilde-St. Margaret’s. Especially we are paying attention to the middle class to make sure we are accessible,” Dr. Skinner said.

Despite concerns about the possible effects of this plan, teachers understand the importance of keeping BSM affordable for the middle class families. “We know that any time the teachers and staff are paid more, families have to cough up more for tuition…The increase makes it a lot harder for middle class families to send their students here. The lower class has financial aid, and the upper class can afford it,” Ms. Leider said.

While the shortfall in the budget plan creates problems on its own, the administration still plans to replace all student laptops over the summer with the newer Macbook Air laptops. “We actually looked at that very carefully, and what we found is that to keep the current fleet of laptops next year would be equally if not more expensive. And the reason is that [the current laptops are] out of warranty,” Dr. Skinner said.

The shaky economy does not make the issue any easier for the administration. “Part of the challenge is health care is going up. The benefits are things we can’t control. We are looking at all options we can do,” Dr. Tift said.