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Continued: Amid an overhaul, Girl Scouts cope with fiscal woes, declining membership, grassroots dismay

  • Article by: DAVID CRARY , AP National Writer
  • Last update: June 24, 2013 - 9:45 AM

Also refusing to merge was the council led by Nelles — the Farthest North Girl Scout Council in Fairbanks.

Nelles, who contended that realignment weakened local control while saddling councils with new financial burdens, says she's been ostracized by the national office.

"Questioning authority is very much frowned upon," she said. "If anyone resisted them at any point, they said we just wanted to hold onto the past."

Among other consequences, the mergers affected the Girl Scouts' national pension plan, because many employees were added to it as an inducement to take early retirement.

One council, the Nashville-based Girl Scouts of Middle Tennessee, is suing to get out of the pension plan. The lawsuit contends the GSUSA added as many as 1,850 employees to the plan who hadn't contributed to it, leaving local councils with a liability they had not agreed to fund.

According to the suit, the pension plan had a surplus of more than $150 million in 2007. It now has a deficit of about $347 million, according to GSUSA figures.

One of the Tennessee council's lawyers, James Bristol, stressed that his clients were not seeking money from the GSUSA, but rather wanted to negotiate a remedy.

"They would not negotiate," Bristol said. "They've told us, 'We've got this under control.'"

The GSUSA has filed a motion for the case to be dismissed.

It is also asking Congress to pass legislation that would provide relief by stretching out the timetable for local councils to pay into the pension plan. Without such relief, councils could face a 40 percent increase in pension expenses next year, and be forced into layoffs and program cuts, according to GSUSA.

Financial stress already has prompted many local councils to consider selling off old summer camps, both to gain revenue and reduce maintenance costs.

In many states — including Iowa, Ohio, New York, Alabama and Missouri — the sell-off plans provoked intense debate. Pro-camp activists argue that camping is integral to the Girl Scout experience; local leaders contend that today's girls are less keen on camping than their predecessors.

A decision by the Girl Scouts of North East Ohio to close several camps prompted a lawsuit by disgruntled adult members, as well as calls for a boycott of cookie sales. The gap between the sides was summarized on the website of Trefoil Integrity, formed by some dissident members.

"The board believes that classes in leadership, financial literacy, and robotics competition are what girls need," it said. "Camp supporters believe that leadership is learned through the experiences of real living ... Children need camps as places of quiet, of basic challenges, of connection to nature."

Chavez said the GSUSA respects the views of dissident alumnae and adult volunteers, but is convinced it's making the right choices on behalf of today's girls by offering a balanced program that will produce future leaders.

"Camps will always be part of our mission," she said. "But girls aren't living in the past — they're living in the future."

A Girl Scout herself while growing up in Arizona, Chavez, 45, took over as the GSUSA's first Hispanic CEO after serving as chief executive of Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas. She's pleased by a 55 percent surge in the number of Hispanic Girl Scouts since 2000.

Under her leadership, a new set of handbooks seeks to nurture such attributes as environmental awareness, healthy lifestyles and critical thinking. New programs seek to boost girls' competency with money matters and encourage them to pursue careers in science and technology.

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