Budget includes raises for officials

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By The Staff

The West Las Vegas school board approved a budget last week that includes hefty raises for two top district officials.

Members Caroline Lopez and Kenny Lujan voted against the document. They protested giving pay hikes to the two officials when the district was asking others to sacrifice in lean times.

“This will hurt morale in the district. People who have heard about this are upset,” Lopez told the Optic.

Superintendent Jim Abreu disagreed.

“This is a proposed budget, and it’s not true that raises have been given or approved. That’s just an amount put into that budget line item for next year. We would still have to negotiate all that, and that will be part of the next superintendent’s job,” Abreu said.

The budget, which is still considered preliminary in the state’s eyes, would increase the pay of Business Manager Dawn Biagianti from $70,000 to $90,000 a year and Associate Superintendent Mary Jo Archibeque from $89,000 to $95,000, officials said.

During last week’s school board meeting, Archibeque told the board, “You can keep the $6,000.”

Because of declining state revenue, the district will have to lay off eight teachers, all of whom were in their first or second years. That’s a blow, but not as bad as the situation in the Las Vegas City Schools, which will give 15 employees pink slips.

The changes will take effect July 1, the beginning of the budget year. Superintendent Jim Abreu said it’s possible that some of the eight teachers may be eventually hired anyway, as has happened in previous years.

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At a contentious five-hour meeting Thursday night, board member Gary Gold said the district was teetering on disaster if the proposed budget was held up

“The worst-case scenario is if we don’t approve this tonight, we lose a business manager, and we go back to square one. Then all five of us can sit here and do the budget ourselves,” Gold said.

Earlier, Biagianti laid out a $13 million-plus budget that included a raise in administrative salaries. She said the district would be getting close to $1 million more in per-student state funding than last year; however, the federal stimulus funds are decreasing more than $1 million, from $1.2 million to $136,098.

As for administrative pay hikes, Biagianti said every penny of the money she put in for those salaries can be justified.

“Their training, experience, responsibilities, and the time and effort they put in, could easily justify even more pay,” Biagianti said. “To go back and reduce administrative salaries, no thank you, I’m sorry, we earn every penny. Not that everybody else doesn’t, too, but I’m standing firm.”

Biagianti said she took a pay cut to come to the West district. Before retiring from a southern New Mexico school district, she was making about $85,000, officials say.

Gold said the board would be interviewing superintendent candidates this week and should cut the pay of the new superintendent.

Member David Romero countered, “So you’re saying the business manager should make almost the same pay as the superintendent?”

“Yes, I guess that’s what I’m saying, and I know we are going to disagree about that. We are going to try to get the best possible superintendent we can, but we’re definitely not going to bring someone in at the current superintendent’s salary,” Gold said.

The current salary is $115,000.

During the course of the meeting, Gold and board President Christine Ludi said that it was a tentative budget and the board would have every opportunity to change any of the line items contained in the document. Romero, Lopez and Lujan weren’t buying it and continued to stall any motions made by the other side.

Superintendent Jim Abreu, whose contract as superintendent wasn’t renewed, said with this budget, the district was maintaining what it has.

“It’s actually a very solid budget for West Las Vegas for next year, and while I’m not going to be here next year, I’m very happy with it. You all have the right to change or tweak it anyway you want to, but we have not torn ourselves to pieces here, and slashed positions and programs. We are in pretty good shape, so I recommend you approve it, send it on to the (Public Education Department), and see what they say,” Abreu said.

Defending the administration, Ludi said, “I think we have to put enough confidence in the people who are watching over the finances of this district. Yes, it is our (board’s) responsibility, but we have to make sure you do what you need to do to get our budget balanced.”

Romero, who was one of the first members to voice his concern about administrative pay, seemed to be leaning toward a compromise and asked Gold to make his motion.

Gold, Ludi and Romero voted to send the budget to the state with language that the local board would have the final say on its contents. Lopez and Lujan voted against the budget.

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In a weekend e-mail to Ludi, Lopez said she continued to be outraged that very substantial pay increases were recommended by Abreu and approved by the majority of the board for associate superintendent and business manager.

“Yet we gave a whopping $1 raise to our teachers and support staff. The board needs to reconsider this terrible decision without delay,” Lopez wrote.

Lopez said she would ask Ludi to call a special meeting as soon as possible and before the budget is submitted to Santa Fe on Thursday.