Facing a projected $2.3 million operating deficit next year and a potential property tax referendum looming in 2011, three members of the Riverside-Brookfield High School board will soon meet with the leadership of the teachers union in what appears to be an attempt to see if the union is willing to make concessions in its contract.

District 208 Interim Superintendent David Bonnette and board members were tight-lipped about just what they would be asking for from the union.

“This is just an exploratory meeting at this point,” Bonnette said.

Board President James Marciniak, Vice President Sue Kleinmeyer and finance committee co-chairman Mike Welch will meet with the leadership of the Riverside Brookfield Education Association (RBEA). A date for the meeting has not been set, but it will be some time in March, Bonnette said.

RBEA President Dave Monti confirmed that the meeting will take place “to hear the board’s impression of the district’s financial condition.”

In 2008, the school board and the RBEA signed a five-year contract giving teachers average base raises of 2.78 percent. When automatic step increases are added, teachers are getting average raises of 5.58 percent annually. The contract expires at the end of the 2012-13 school year, which is about the time when RB is projected to run out of cash unless cuts are made or taxes raised.

The average teacher salary at RB is $86,442 according to RB’s 2009 school report card.

In April 2008 the school board voted 5-1 to approve the contract. Laura Hruska, who was defeated when she ran for reelection to the school board last year, cast the only vote against the contract, saying at the time that she thought the raises were more than the district could afford.

At least week’s school board meeting a former candidate for the school board excoriated the four members of the current school board who voted to approve the contract.

“The district could not afford that contract the day it was signed,” said Chris Robling, who finished seventh in an eight-person field in the 2007 school board election. “That contract could not be paid with available funds the day that it was signed by this district. That’s why the board had to borrow $5 million just one year later without a referendum. Four of you supported that borrowing.”

The RBEA had endorsed the three incumbents who ran for re-election in the 2007 school board race: Herbst, Kleinmeyer and Marty Crowley. Kleinmeyer and Herbst were reelected. Marciniak, who ran on a team with Robling in the 2007 election, was elected as was MariAnn Leibrandt, who ran independently.

In 2009 the district borrowed $4.9 million by issuing working cash bond to replenish its reserves. More than 1,800 residents signed petitions to force a referendum on the bond sale, but a challenge to the validity of some of the signatures was upheld and the number of valid signatures fell short of the numbered required to force a referendum.

Robling challenged the four members of the board who voted for the teachers’ contract and the working cash bonds to propose cuts to balance the budget.

“It is incumbent upon the majority of this board, MariAnn [Leibrandt], Larry [Herbst], Jim [Marciniak], and Sue [Kleinmeyer] to start that conversation, because you four approved both the contract and the borrowing of the $5 million, to unveil your specific plan for operations from 2010 to 2012 and beyond including how District 208 will repay the $4.9 million that you borrowed without a referendum,” Robling said. “What should be cut to fund the contract that you supported? What programs should be dropped to repay the bonds you floated?”

In subsequent interviews, the board members defended the contract and declined to offer specific cuts saying that is up to the entire board and that budget cuts are something the administration is working on.

“When the board comes up with plans to deal with our financial future we will do so as a board,” Marciniak said.

Marciniak chaired the board’s personnel committee when the teachers’ contract was negotiated. He, Herbst and Kleinmeyer made up the board’s negotiating team in 2008.

Marciniak defended his vote to approve the contract.

“I stand behind my contract vote of two years ago,” Marciniak said. “It was a sound contract at the time, and here in 2010 it’s easy to look at things that people did in 2008 and have them look foolish. This doesn’t only apply to school boards. You can look all over the country and see these sorts of examples.”

Herbst, who was school board president when the contract was signed, said that the bad economy and a low inflation rate which limited the school’s tax levy this year to just one-tenth of 1 percent was unforeseeable.

“There wasn’t a crystal ball in the room,” Herbst said. “We made a best recommendation to the board based on the information we were given. We just at that time had no idea as to where the economy was going. No one at any point, I don’t think, predicted a one-tenth of 1 percent increase.”

Bonnette said it has been clear for a couple of years that RB needs to pass a tax increase referendum. Ideally, that referendum would have been held at the primary election two weeks ago, but because of turmoil in the district and a change at the top last year when Jack Baldermann resigned, a referendum this year was just not feasible, Bonnette said.

“We were scripted to be having a referendum on what would have been February 2, last week,” Bonnette said. “When I came on the scene here last spring it was I think uniformly held that we just weren’t in a position, either in the terms of conditions of the district or certainly condition of the economy both locally or beyond, to do that.”