Leader Blues

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

TOP STORY>> School board upholds cuts

IN SHORT: PCSSD employees lose their plea Tuesday to have their step pay increases and paid holidays restored, but they threaten a possible lawsuit.

By John Hofheimer
Leader staff writer

Pulaski County Special School District employees failed to convince the school board on Tuesday to reject the administration's freezing of step pay increases and elimination of paid holidays. The board stuck with the new fiscal distress improvement plan, approved unanimously by the board in special session on Monday, to cut spending for the next school year by $8.5 million while restoring—without any discussion in public—the 11 assistant principal positions the board cut in its original improvement plan April 20.

The state Board of Education designated the district as being in fiscal distress April 11, based on its calculation that the district’s operational fund balance would be $5 million in the hole at the end of the next school year.

The district has two years to remedy to the problem or face measures including consolidation, replacement of the superintendent or takeover by the state.

In the April version of the improvement plan, the board thought it reduced expenditures by $11.7 million, only to discover this month that the calculations and projections were inaccurate and the actual reduction would be closer to $8.5 million.

The cuts reduce the projected 2005-2006 school budget from $143.5 million to $135 million, with a projected fund balance June 30, 2006 of about $8 million.

“This allows us a thin cushion,” said interim Superintendent Robert Clowers.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, the district will have about 5.9 percent of its budget in its fund balance at the end of the next fiscal year, but there is no state-recommended or mandated percentage. Balances in Arkansas range from about 3.6 percent to 52 percent, according to John Archetko, acting chief financial officer for the district.

Archetko, who met with Education Department representatives, said the state wants the district to live within its means, avoid debt and create a plan that’s doable.

The largest savings are from freezing step pay increases and eliminating paid holidays.
There was great support among board members for restoring paid holidays and unfreezing step increases as soon as the district is back on solid financial footing, but Archetko warned that only if voters approve a maintenance and operations bond issue is the district again likely to have the kind of money it needs.

Because the savings were recalculated to be about $3.5 million less than originally projected, because the board fired Superintendent Donald Henderson and appointed Robert Clowers interim superintendent and because it wanted more explanation about proposed cuts, the state Education Department gave the school district until June 15 to submit an amended fiscal distress improvement plan.

That revised plan, approved after considering board member Jeff Shaneyfelt’s amendments to restore some paid holidays to non-teaching staff and to bolster discipline by keeping the director of student services and athletics position, spared the 11 assistant principal positions, which were slated to be cut by the original improvement plan.

The largest among the cuts in the plan being submitted to the state Education Department is $3.3 million saved by freezing all step increases to teachers and others.

Eliminating the 11 assistant principals, a suggestion of the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers, would have saved the district an additional $850,000. Apparently Clowers discussed keeping the assistant principals in individual meetings or telephone calls with board members, because cutting the assistant principals was not among cuts proposed and adopted Monday night.

Elimination of all paid holidays to all employees saved $1.9 million and another $1 million by paying off the early-retirement incentive. Hiring substitute teachers instead of contracting that to Kelly Services was projected to save another $500,000.

Purchase of new textbooks was reduced $500,000, reductions to the transportation department will save $248,507. The maintenance budget was trimmed by $124,000, $116,000 was saved by reverting Harris from a year-round school to regular schedule and cutting the director of student services and athletics saved the district $101,854.