Monday, April 30, 2012

TOP STORY >> Not anti-union, Guess declares

Leader senior staff writer

Despite allegations, Superintendent Jerry Guess claims he and state Education Com-missioner Tom Kimbrell never set out to break the Pulaski County Special School District’s unions.

Had the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers and Pulaski Association of Support Staff been more cooperative, they’d likely still be representing most of the district’s 3,500 employees, Guess said in an exclusive interview with The Leader.

“I will help you survive if you will work with me,” Guess said he told the unions.
But they were trying to stanch the hemorrhaging with the proverbial bandage and seemed to doubt the extent of the crisis.

Guess recalled Thursday that Bill Goff came to his office with news one afternoon last summer, just after he had signed a requisition for about $2 million worth of new textbooks.

“You’re out of money,” Goff, then state Education Department assistant commissioner for fiscal and administrative services, told him. Guess then rushed out of his office to stop the requisition.

On April 20, Kimbrell instructed Guess to cease recognition of the unions as bargaining agents for the teachers and support staff and to recognize instead two newly formed personnel policy committees.

For the unions to question the validity and potential fatality of the district’s declining legal-fund balance is either disingenuous or shows a real lack of understanding, Guess said.

He said he wished the unions had an accountant working with them.

“When I was hired, nobody even knew that the descending balance had occurred. I was hired thinking it was a procedural problem. Not until (financial consultant) Don (Stewart) scratched his head in late July or August and said, “You know what, I think we got a cash flow problem....He calls Bill (Goff) and says I think we need to be looking at this.”

Guess disputed union allegations that the declining legal-fund-balance issue that gave the district a second helping of fiscal distress was a ginned-up excuse to pry the lid off the union contracts and strip away 40 years of gains for district employees, though that may be the consequence.


“This is not a nebulous issue, this is an accountant’s issue,” he said. “The legislative auditors were here six months working downstairs.”

Guess said that when he be-came superintendent, his two goals were to get PCSSD out of fiscal distress and to get unitary status, that is, resolve the 20-year-old desegregation agreement.

Those remain his goals, but the difficulty of achieving the first one has grown in magnitude.

Guess, as former superintendent of Camden Fairview School District, may have been uniquely qualified to help the district achieve unitary status and also escape from fiscal distress.

Because the district was already in fiscal distress, Kimbrell had dissolved the school board, fired new Superintendent Charles Hopson and hired Guess to straighten out the mess.

Following two months of intermittent negotiations and mediation between district administrators and the unions, Kimbrell told Guess to implement his fiscal distress recovery plan.

The unions have promised to challenge their disenfranchisement in court.

Union leaders have questioned the authority of administrators or the state to void their legal contract.

“The Lakeview decision said education is the responsibility of the state,” Guess said.

Takeover of a district by the state is essentially a bankruptcy and contracts are frequently terminated under such conditions, he said.

The district started the 2010-2011 school year with about $9 million in funds, but ended the year with $4 million—a decline of $5.5 million, he said.

Without a $15 million one-time desegregation windfall this school year, the district would have been on track to end the year about $3 million in debt.

Guess said he would have had to lay off employees during the school year. Instead, the district will end the year with about $12 million.

Without the sweeping changes, the district’s expenses would have exceeded anticipated revenues by $32 million by the end of the 2016-2017 school year, he said.

The unions and the district already had agreed on $7 million worth of cuts with a goal of  about $11 million.

The unions were willing to reopen parts of their contracts dealing with salary and benefits, but Guess said a much more comprehensive reorganization of policies is required.

Over the years, these two unions had won concessions, codified as board policies and put in their contracts, which  employees of other districts do not enjoy, and some of them are more expensive than they might seem, Guess said.

Professional-growth benefits, generally given for college-level work, if at all, have been available to PCSSD teachers for “softball” classes. Guess himself received a professional-growth credit for his bound, inch-thick dissertation “Desegregation Through Consolidation: A Qualitative Study of the Formation of the Camden Fairview Public School District.”

A PCSSD teacher can receive the identical credit—which currently translates into increased pay—for taking a class like “Our World One Picture Book at a Time,” or “Understanding Why Women Backstab, Betray and Trash Talk Each Other” and How to Heal,” Guess said.


Guess, a former teacher of the year, says that without charging the district for all the extras, he was yearbook sponsor, filmed football games for the coaches, drove a bus at times, produced a student literary book and many other things.

But PCSSD teachers want pay for lunchroom and playground duty and for school meetings in excess of one hour a month.

As for having accrued leave–used for any purpose–instead of sick leave, Guess said he didn’t think teachers, staff or administrators should be taking time off during school hours unless they are sick.

As part of the package of changes Guess will implement, the district will phase out over three years the 4 percent increase on the salary schedule that teachers receive for professional-growth classes based on district classes—a net annual savings of about $2.8 million, according to the revised fiscal distress improvement plan Kimbrell instructed Guess to implement.


Other changes to the contracts negotiated by the unions include:

– Phasing out professional- growth contracts for certified personnel will save $1.2 million a year and for classified personnel another $344,000.

– The district will save about $377,000 a year by not paying teachers for most of the non-instructional duties they are currently paid for.

– By eliminating attendance incentive pay for all employees, the district saves about $103,000.

– The district gives back $154,000 by adding unused sick leave pay to support staff so it matches the benefit to certified personnel.

– Eliminating bereavement leave will save another estimated $30,000 a year.

– Elimination of severance pay will save about $805,000 annually and changing accrued leave to sick leave as defined by state law will save about $219,000.

– By having to pay for fewer substitute teachers’ salaries and benefits, the district is expected to save about $2 million.

Guess says elimination of other powers garnered by the unions over the years will also cut expenses. For instance, teachers can no longer demand evaluation by someone other than their principal.

“That required a memorandum of understanding,” he said.

Officials expect to save $775,000 a year by cutting the teachers contract by two days to 190 days. That’s about a 1.1 percent cut.

PACT president Marty Nix said cuts were inequitable and had proposed cutting the district’s year-round employees—including principals and central office staff—also to 190 days.

Guess also took issue with the union contention that he earns $260,000, more than the vice president of the United States. “I make $215,000,” he said, before benefits.