Leader Blues

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

TOP STORY>>Teachers want cuts elsewhere

IN SHORT>> PCSSD board is divided over reductions that must be made in order to balance the district’s budget.

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

Under the duress of not only financial distress but emotional distress, frustrations boiled over at Tuesday night’s Pulaski County Special School District board meeting, with teachers and administrators nominating each other to bear the brunt of cuts to balance the budget and satisfy the state.

Freezing teacher salaries would save $3.4 million, more than a third of the $9 million in savings proposed by Superintendent Donald Henderson and his cabinet, cuts intended to pull the district out of the precipitous three-year financial plunge that has drawn scrutiny from the state Department of Education and a designation as one of 11 Arkansas school districts in financial distress.

That didn’t include another $1 million in proposed savings from cutting seven gifted and talented teachers, and 12.5 elementary and secondary counselors.

The Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers (PACT), countered with a proposal that would cut the number of principals and assistants district wide from the current allocation of 51 to the state mandated minimum of seven for a $3 million savings.

Failure to turn around the school’s financial situation could result in forced consolidation. The state Education Department could force a superintendent to give up control or could suspend and replace the school board.

Making $9 million worth of cuts would leave the district with a projected fund balance of about $10 million at the end of the 2005-2006 school year instead of a projected deficiency of about $5.3 million, according to John Archetko, interim assistant superintendent for business.

As Archetko listed 27 categories for reductions and Henderson explained that only the southwestern part of the district would keep its home school counselors as required by the desegregation agreement, Bishop James Bolden III, Jacksonville’s representative loudly interrupted.

“I understand about the desegregation, but we’ve got kids that need help.”

“The children are suffering,” Bolden said, his rising voice shaking with apparent emotion.

“If it seems like I’m frustrated, I am,” he said, taking off his glasses and slapping his hand on the table.

“I appreciate the teachers, but sometimes we can’t afford raises.” He said he objected to keeping the counselors at the southwest schools, but not in Jacksonville or at Harris. “If you’re going to cut, cut across the board,” he said.

The floodgates opened, and all board members in turn expressed their frustrations.

Board president Mildred Tatum — whose district includes those southwest schools—assured Bolden that no action would be taken until the special April 20 board meeting.

Board member Carol Burgett put some of the district’s financial blame on the state legislature and Congress for unfunded mandates, including the so-called No-Child-Left-Behind mandate.

Past board president Jeff Shaneyfelt, still on the board, assured her that the legislature provided the district with an additional $13 million last year, which the district spent.

“This is a tragic situation. We had a $20 million fund balance three years ago,” he said. He then blamed poor management by the board, including himself.

“I predicted three years ago we would have this catastrophe,” Shaneyfelt said.

Board member Pam Roberts said that increasing tension had grown over the past few years between teachers and administrators.
“This is being used,” she said, “and the kids get caught in the middle.”

“Everybody is going to take some cuts,” she said.

Board member Don Baker said the Chinese character for a crises was the same as the character for an opportunity and urged the board to look on the financial distress designation as an opportunity.

Deen Minton, PACT president, said salary negotiations are due to begin this week and the district wouldn’t be conceding increases in pay and benefits, at least now.

She presented the association’s ideas for saving money and coming out of financial distress as well as a number of questions about the administration’s proposed cuts.

Shaneyfelt, a CPA, has long forecast financial woes as the district gave teacher raises, complied with unfunded mandates and looted money originally earmarked for school construction and improvement projects.

“I’ve been saying all along that I don’t think we’ve had a real handle on our budget,” he said in a Tuesday afternoon interview.

“This is probably the third time in three years we’ve gone through major cuts,” said Shaneyfelt. “Each time, phones light up like a Christmas tree. We’ve peeled down to the core and we’re getting down to the blood.”