Tuesday, February 14, 2012

TOP STORY >> Must slash to survive, PCSSD says

Leader senior staff writer

It could be “fatal” if Pulaski County Special School District unions don’t agree to an additional $7 million in fringe-benefit concessions beginning in the 2012-13 school year, Superintendent Jerry Guess testified Monday in a fiscal-distress hearing before the state Board of Education.

Without such concessions, expenditures will exceed revenues by $13.3 million next year, he said, and the legal fund balance will be in the red. (See editorial, page 8A.)

The district originally was identified as being in fiscal distress last May based on a state Legislative Audit that found improper financial oversight, improper reimbursement of board members and outright theft of more than $400,000 by a former maintenance supervisor.

In June, state Educational Commissioner Tom Kimbrell dissolved PCSSD’s elected school board and fired first-year Superintendent Charles Hopson. Kimbrell became a one-man board and hired Guess as superintendent and Bill Goff as chief financial officer.

Fund Balance Declines

In August, with the 2010-11 books closed, the Education Department and PCSSD officials found the legal fund balance had declined by $5.5 million and as a result, the second finding of fiscal distress was issued Monday by the board.

The only reason the district will finish this school year with a $4.6 million legal fund balance is that it received a one-time, $15 million infusion of property-tax money.

Budget is mostly salary

Goff said that about 80 percent of the non-federal program budget pays salaries and benefits, so that’s where the district must go to cut and control costs.

Guess said the district was in such dire straits because of “lax administrative oversight” over a period of years.

“This is a very delicate balance between telling you the situation’s critical and at the same time, assuring parents that everything’s alright. We have high plans for 2012-13,” Guess told the state board.

Toward that end, and in response to a query from state Board of Education member Sam Ledbetter, Guess said the district could spend $8 million to $10 million from a dedicated building fund on roof, plumbing, electrical and parking lot repairs, as well as painting and carpeting in addressing some of the district’s considerable facilities needs.

Reassure Parents

“I want to reassure parents that we are making curriculum changes, we’re planning for a good academic year 2012-13,” Guess said. “We planning to use the money for the needs that we have and desperately need in facilities. We’re putting roofs on, we’re painting buildings, we’re repairing parking lots.”

Among the 11 schools singled out–based on compliance with desegregation agreement guidelines–seven local schools were identified for about $2.5 million worth of work, Goff said later.

Those schools are Harris Elementary, Jacksonville High School, Jacksonville Middle School, Sylvan Hills Elementary School, Tolleson Elementary School, Sylvan Hills High School and Northwood Elementary School. (See sidebar.)

Unilateral action

Guess threatened “unilateral action” should the unions prove unwilling to renegotiate, making the necessary cuts.”

He declined to explain what such options the state or district might have in the face of existing union contracts that run through 2015.

“Our goal will be first to convince the union(s) that the situation described...is critical and it does exist. It will be fatal to the continued existence of the district if those conditions are not corrected,” the superintendent said.

“My second goal is to persuade the union and the employees it represents to agree to decrease that $16 million (fringe benefit total) by a figure of around $7 million. I do not want to approach these negotiations in an attitude of not succeeding or in a threatening posture.

“But what I will do if we do not succeed, suffice it to say I have a plan for unilateral implementation of the district’s last, best and final offer to the union during these negotiations,” Guess told the board.

Marty Nix, president of the powerful Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers, didn’t return calls Tuesday.

Guess, Goff, financial consultant Don Stewart and Kimbrell—who dissolved the elected PCSSD school board on June 20 and became a one-man school board—identified potential cost savings by comparing employee benefits and board policies to the state-required minimums.

Eliminate 77 positions

In order to reduce the 2012-13 budget by $13.6 million, the district proposes to eliminate 77 positions, saving $3.8 million; a reduction in the amount the district pays toward employee health insurance, $1.5 million; leaving existing unfilled positions vacant, $775,000; changing bell schedule resulting transportation savings, $401,000; and a new copier contract, $141,000. That totals $6.6 million in identified cuts, but requires cutting another $6.9 million.

Finding that money is likely to affect some or all of the following, according to Goff: number of employees, salaries paid to employees and benefits.

For instance, the state requires 190 days of school each year, but employees of PCSSD work and are paid for 192 days, according to Goff’s presentation.

By cutting those two days, the district would save $795,438 in salaries and benefits.

Teachers are paid $642,000 more than required by state law for non-instructional duties such as bus duty, student supervision and lunch and recess duty, according to PCSSD officials, and $2.8 million related to professional growth classes taught by teachers at the school.

Also targeted

Also in the discussion are severance pay, bonuses for National Board certification, longevity pay, attendance incentive pay, supplemental and additional work pay ($900,000 last year alone,) and district contribution to employee health insurance at a rate twice that required by the state.

Potential health insurance savings is about $4.2 million a year.

The district also wants to review paid leave policies and supplemental salary for support staff—mostly bus drivers—who are represented by the Pulaski Association of Support Staff.