Tuesday, April 17, 2012

TOP STORY >> Department hears ideas from PCSSD

Leader staff writer

The state education commissioner met with two factions of the Pulaski County Special School District on Tuesday to determine how to shave $13 million or more from the beleaugered district’s budget.

Tom Kimbrell met in the morning with representatives of the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers and the Pulaski Association of Support Staff.

Then later that afternoon, he met with the district’s superintendent, Dr. Jerry Guess, and other district officials.

If the cuts can’t be worked out, then the state Board of Education has the authority to make other plans for the district, from a range of options that include dissolution, consolidation, reconfiguration and even assignment to management by a charter organization.

Negotiating for most of this year, the two sides fairly quickly agreed to about $7 million in cuts, but then the give-and-take stalled.

Negotiations and mediation between district officials and the unions came to an impasse about a month ago. Kimbrell acted after a final mediation attempt failed to make progress.

“If there’s not something that happens to get this into balance by the end of the month, we have concerns about the ability to get the district out of fiscal distress,” he said.

Changes must be made by May 1, when there is otherwise an automatic renewal of employment in contract terms, according to Guess.

According to paperwork submitted to Kimbrell by PACT president Marty Nix, the district superintendent is painting the unions in a negative light. Nix wrote that Guess is trying to convey to the Arkansas Department of Education that “we are unwilling to collaborate with him and his surprisingly single race negotiation team.

“It was even a greater surprise that a district consistently criticized for its exorbitant attorney fees has a negotiations team composed of two district-paid outside attorneys and one district-paid outside consultant.”

Nix said the union has been asked to cut the teachers work contract from 192 to 190 days, but the administrators’ 244-day contracts aren’t being cut. “Teachers can account for every single one of their 192-work days; can the 244-day administrators account for every single one of their work days?” Nix wrote.

District officials claim the unions are ignoring the fact that $15.1 million in property tax revenue for this school year was a one-time payment and without cuts the district will still have a multimillion dollar deficit. “Doing nothing is not an option,” Guess wrote in his letter to Kimbrell.

To date, district administrators and union leaders have agreed to forego pay raises or experience step increases, not replacing buses, eliminating 77 positions through attrition or reduction in force, changes in benefits, eliminating 19 bus routes and keeping a number of unfilled positions vacant.

The administration wants to cut teacher contracts by two days, cut pay for non-instructional duties, revamp how teachers get credit for professional growth for raises, cut severance pay, cut incentive pay for national board certification, cut longevity pay, cut attendance incentive pay and have employees pay a larger share of their health benefits’ costs.

Earlier, Kimbrell said he would review the proposals, but the district must “build a plan that we can recommend to the state board that can allow its release from the fiscal-distress designation.”

Because the district is currently bound by the terms of a desegregation agreement, federal District Judge Brian Miller would have to sign off on some sort of reconfiguration, Kimbrell said earlier.

Leader staff writer John Hofheimer contributed to this report.