Leader Blues

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

TOP STORY>> PCSSD looking for big savings

IN SHORT: In preparation for a special Wednesday board meeting called to cut millions from the school board budget, the financial officer sees real savings from each proposed cut.

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

Pulaski County Special School District administrators and the board will meet in special session at 6 p.m. Wednesday in an effort to lop $9 million from the 2005-2006 budget, expected to run about $143 million otherwise.

The cuts are necessary because the district—the second largest in the state—has been placed on the financial distress list by the state Board of Education.

That designation can have dire consequences, in-cluding forced consolidation, replacement of the superintendent or the board and even a state takeover of the district.
The district is one of 11 designated as in financial distress.

The administration wants to cut $9 million from the budget to begin the process of getting the district off the financial distress list.

In response to an invitation to outgoing Superintendent Donald Henderson, three groups and one board member had submitted suggested cuts and prioritized the cuts in preparation for the meeting, according to John Archetko, interim assistant superintendent for business and chief financial officer.

In recent years, the district has spent millions more each year than it receives, depleting its savings to cover the difference. It even spends $10 million a year originally designated to retire school construction bonds and another $14 million dollars in desegregation money from the state.

Archetko said there was “nothing startling” in the proposals from the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers, the elementary school principals, an administrators group including secondary school principals or from Carol Burgett, a board member.

Archetko has projected the ending fund balance for the current fiscal year is $4.9 million, down from about $20 million three years ago, according to one board member.

Without carrying the fund balance over and without making cuts, the year-end fund balance next year is projected to be $5.3 million in the red.

Henderson and his cabinet have proposed cuts, most noticeably a $3.4 million savings from foregoing what has become an annual teachers’ raise in the 3 percent range.

At the regular April 12 board meeting, the teachers in turn suggested decimating the ranks of district principals, leaving just seven of 51, according to a proposal by Deen Minton, president of the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers.

Minton said that would reduce the principal-to-student ratio to the state minimum.
Either proposal would save roughly $3 million a year.

Antagonism between the teachers and principals has been a badly kept secret in recent years.

Although board member Pam Roberts warned various factions not to use the designation and the need for cuts as an excuse to promote their own agendas, it was clear at Tuesday’s meeting that the administration would freeze teacher salaries and the teachers would cut the number of principals in the district from 51 to 7.

At the Wednesday night meeting, the board will weigh its options as it struggles to not only balance budget, but to reverse its fortune by taking steps to graduate from the school financial distress list and the scrutiny that goes with that dubious distinction.

The easy cuts were made years ago. Proposed cuts this time around could affect the ability to attract and keep good teachers, security, counseling and the gifted and talented program.

Principals would be pressed into services as lunchroom monitors, and the central office would lose one custodian, the director of accountability, an accountant, director of student services and athletics, the director of support staff personnel and one secretary from the superintendent’s office.

Next to the salary freeze, the largest savings would be from finishing payments on the early retirement incentive program, $1 million; eliminating the buying of new textbooks, $1 million; eliminating nine home school counselors, $498,000; cutting eight secondary school counselors, $449,172; eminating lunchroom monitors, $500,000; cutting 4.4 elementary counselors, $230,403 and seven gifted and talented teachers, $325,513.

The teachers’ proposal to have only the number of principals required by the state would save about $3 million, they say.

“In three years, we’ve gone from $17 million down to zero,” said past board pre-sident Jeff Shaneyfelt, a certified public accountant. “Only way to explain it is our labor costs.”

He said the board has failed to understand the future impact of raises it granted in the past.
Even without annual cost-of-living raises, teachers receive raises for longevity and increased education, he said.

“That’s not to say employees aren’t valuable and worth what we play them, it’s just, like a household, we get a certain amount of revenue to run the school,” Shaneyfelt said.

“We have a lot of expenses we have to incur each year, transportation, utilities, textbooks and supplies. There’s only a certain amount left after that. We have to do the best we can.”
With payroll and benefits accounting for about three-quarters of the budget, there aren’t going to be any easy or painless ways to cut expenses, he said.

Payroll raises don’t go away, he said. Once you establish a certain rate, you live with that.
The district’s construction bond millage raises $14 million each year for capital improvements. In recent years, only $4 million a year has been used to service debt, with the other $10 million diverted used to pay salaries, gasoline and utility bills and any other expenses—which is legal, but not what the voters understood—Shaneyfelt said.

The other districts designated as in financial distress were Altheimer Unified School District, Dierks, Dollarway, Eudora, Flippin, Helena – West Helena, Lead Hill, Midland, Waldo and Western Yell County School District.