Leader Blues

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

TOP STORY >> PCSSD distress plan not accepted

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

The State Education Department has for the third time sent Pulaski County Special School District officials back to the drawing board to formulate an acceptable fiscal-distress improvement plan.
In a letter received by the district Wednesday, the education department informed the district that its most recent plan was “not approved.”

“We’ve already started working on that,” school board president Mildred Tatum said. “We just wish we had known exactly what they wanted.”

The letter, signed by Bobbie Davis, assistant commissioner of fiscal and administrative services, told acting PCSSD Superintendent Robert L. Clowers that the plan lacked sufficient specific timelines and detailed actions and depended too much upon verbal communications.

The submitted plan could include closing or consolidating one or more of the smaller schools in the district.
The district was found to be in fiscal distress April 11, but school officials said a meeting on Sept. 23 was the first time the department had asked for timelines.

The problems with the district’s various plan submissions have been complicated by lawsuits filed by teachers and non-certified personnel claiming that the district acted illegally by freezing pay and eliminating paid holidays.
The teachers suit tentatively has been settled, but negotiations and the suit with the non-certified personnel continue.

The plan submitted in June would have saved the district about $8.5 million, according to John Archetko, the district’s chief financial officer, but the education department refused to accept the plan, saying the district probably lacked the authority to freeze the teacher salaries.

The revised plan submitted in August — the one the state refused to accept this week — is intended to save PCSSD a total of about $5.2 million for the 2005-2006 and the 2006-2007 school years, Archetko said.
The biggest financial impact would come from eliminating block scheduling, forecast to save the district $1 million a year, and reducing the number of assistant principals, another $918,000 a year.
Other savings would come from reducing to the state minimums the numbers of principals, guidance counselors, media specialists, bookkeepers and registrars and also gifted and talented teachers.
The plan would move athletics, cheerleading and dance periods to after school, and identify and reconfigure financially or operationally inefficient schools.

“I’m disappointed it wasn’t accepted,” Clowers said Friday. “The cabinet met yesterday and today and will meet again Monday. We’ll meet as often as it takes to provide the additional information the department is wanting — markers and timelines and things that would trigger various things.”

For instance, if block scheduling is to be eliminated, there needs to be preparation. If some assistant principals will be sent back to the classroom, they need proper notification.
“At some point, the professionals on both sides need to sit down and resolve the matter, not just shoot paper back a forth,” said board member Jeff Shaney-felt.

“I’m a policy maker and accountant, an outsider. We have to let the administration do its job and the state do its job.”

“At the (Sept. 23) meeting, there were some verbal indications of changes they wanted to make to the plan,” said Julie Thompson, director of communications.

“They are asked to add detailed timelines and detailed savings.”
Thompson said 11 districts were put on fiscal distress in April.
One has been consolidated, Helena-West Helena has been taken over by the state and the department of education has approved five or six districts’ plans and continues to work with the others, including Pulaski County Special School District.

“I think this is a process that the department is going through,” Thompson said. “Right now, we’ve asked them to submit another plan by Nov. 1.

“Our bottom line is concern for the education of the children in Arkansas.”