Collective bargaining is the key to reducing costs at South-Western City Schools, according to a performance audit conducted by the state and released this month.

Collective bargaining is the key to reducing costs at South-Western City Schools, according to a performance audit conducted by the state and released this month.

The school board has met behind closed doors and discussed union negotiations that will take place this year, superintendent Bill Wise said. The board's next step will be to prioritize its goals and select a negotiating team, he said.

Wise declined to elaborate about the closed meeting.

Wise said in December that the board might name its collective bargaining negotiating team this month. The board's last meeting of the month was Feb. 22, and no action has been taken.

Wise on Feb. 22 said he was unsure when school board members will select negotiating team members. It could be March or April, he said. Collective bargaining talks cannot begin more than 90 days preceding June 30, when the current contracts expire.

Board members have started the preparation process, but they have yet to come to a conclusion on the team members, Wise said.

"We just haven't gotten that far enough along in the process," he said.

Board members Jo Ellen Myers and Karen Dover also declined to discuss the closed meeting when questioned Feb. 23.

Myers said she declined to comment because "the discussions were in executive session."

Dover said she declined to comment on the closed meeting "out of respect for the collective bargaining process."

Other board members -- Randy Reisling, Cathy Johnson and Mindy Garverick -- did not return telephone messages Feb. 23.

Wise said that once priorities are set, school board members will begin to discuss "ways to support those priorities," also in executive session.

"As details come available and are appropriate, we'll be glad to share them with (This Week) and the community," Wise said.

When the audit was released this month, Wise and treasurer Hugh Garside said they would "aggressively pursue" the audit's recommendations.

The audit, conducted by state auditor Mary Taylor's office, shows nearly $2-million in annual savings by shifting more health-care costs to employees, but indicates much more money could be saved by adjusting or removing provisions in collective bargaining agreements "that exceed what similar districts in the area offer or that unnecessarily restrict management's ability to efficiently manage the district."

It says results of a 1999 audit suggested similar cost-saving measures, but those recommendations were never fully implemented.

The new audit does not itemize dollar savings attainable by adjusting or removing provisions in the agreements. It does say it finds many of the provisions to be "costly to taxpayers" and "make it more difficult for school board and administrators to efficiently manage the district."

The South-Western school district works with three union groups: an administrative group, certificated or teaching group, and a classified or nonteaching group. The audit compared those agreements with the unions to those of similar districts in the central Ohio area.

It says the district's teacher and administrative union agreements are restrictive to managing an efficient school district.

"For example, there is a provision that requires SWCSD to provide each kindergarten teacher with the services of a full-time aide," the audit states. "There is also a provision to maintain three full-time aides to assist the district's nursing staff. Further, the agreement requires tutors be employed for five hours per day, 185 days per year."

It says bargaining agreements require a certain number of staff per student, which is "unnecessarily restrictive and complicated." Also, it requires school officials "to employ staff in ways it may not need or be able to afford."

The audit says another provision states specifically when the school day starts and ends. It says this "overly restrictive" provision could cause school officials to have more than the optimal number of buses at a school because building start and end times cannot be adjusted, thus wasting district dollars.

Cindy Legue, coordinator of the watchdog organization Excellence for South-Western Schools, said in an interview last week that these kinds of provisions allow unions to dictate how schools are run and "tie the hands of management."

She said over the years that school officials have "given into the unions, caved into the unions" at the expense of children and taxpayers.

"There's a lot more savings that can happen if these unions stop trying to control the district and let management manage the district," Legue said.