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State fact finder rules in favor of Muncie Teachers Association

<p>Muncie Central High School entrance: <em>Patrick Murphy // DN File</em><br/></p>

Muncie Central High School entrance: Patrick Murphy // DN File

Muncie Community Schools may have to close at least five schools after a state fact finder ruled in favor of the Muncie Teachers Association in an ongoing dispute over a pay cut.

There's no certainty yet about what may come, however, and members of MTA are optimistic that the decision will benefit schools and teachers in the long run.

"This is a major victory for teachers across the state of Indiana," Pat Kennedy, president of the MTA, said. "It gives them hope that at least there is a chance of winning."

Muncie Community Schools is currently operating with an $11 million deficit and was requesting that teachers retroactively pay back some of their salary.

The upcoming contract between Muncie teachers and the school corporation will be based on the last best offer (LBO) the association authored. The school district and MTA have been in gridlock over contract negotiations for next school year since March. Both submitted LBO's to the state fact finder after not being able to come to a consensus.

In the 30-page report released on April 1, fact finder Sara Jensen explored both offers, broke them down and eventually recommended the proposal from MTA.

In the report, Jensen acknowledged the proposal from the MTA will save the school less money. However, she said the district will make an estimated $6 million surplus over the next two years, which could chip away at 60 percent of the current deficit.

One of the main differences between the two proposals is dealing with teacher salaries and benefits. The MCS proposal called for cuts to teacher salaries and benefits, 20 percent for most teachers, and the money cuts would have been used to address the deficit. Jensen wrote that she "recognizes that MCS must address its debt" but calls MCS's proposed cuts "extremely aggressive."

Kennedy said she thinks that would be the "wrong action to take" and said a plan needs to be implemented to reduce the debt over time.

"You only do take those kinds of actions if you in fact believe that you have wipe out all this debt at once," Kennedy said. "A good plan is when you work collaboratively on how to chop away at the debt, $2-3 million a year."

In a press release sent out Saturday, MCS said it needs to cut $2 million and that it will close four elementary schools and one middle school to do it.

"MCS must live within its means," Ana Pichardo, director of communications at MCS, said in the press release. "MCS regrets having to make additional cuts and close schools, but the fiscal realities make this necessary in order to remain viable."

The school board may appeal the decision, but Pichardo paints a grim picture for the future of MCS.

"The fact finder's decision ... leaves MCS in potentially the most perilous fiscal situation in the state," Pichardo said. "Difficult decisions to reduce MCS's physical footprint will need to be made shortly."

This story will be updated.