Monday, April 23, 2012

TOP STORY >> State kills unions to cut costs in PCSSD

Leader senior staff writer

State Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell gave Puaski County Special School District officials Friday evening everything they proposed to balance the budget, while kicking the district’s two employee unions to the curb.

One on top of the other, the state piled two fiscal-distress designations on PCSSD over the past years, and both Kimbrell and district officials have concluded that $11 million needed to be cut from the budget, including some cuts already in effect and agreed to by the district and the unions.

Kimbrell, acting under the authority of the state Education Board, instructed PCSSD acting Superintendent Jerry Guess by letter Friday to “withdraw recognition of PACT (Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers) as the bargaining unit for classroom teachers and PASS (Pulaski Association of Support Staff) as bargaining unit for the support staff.”

In his instructions, which he called “binding,” Kimbrell told Guess to “terminate the professional negotiations agreement with PACT and PASS,” while continuing to observe the compensation/fringe benefit obligations of individual employee contracts until June 30.

He also told Guess to implement the district’s revised fiscal-distress plan and policies for employees.

“Public schools have to manage every dollar carefully,” Guess told The Leader.

Asked if he expected the unions to sue to maintain their contracts and bargaining authority, Guess said, “I would be imprudent if I didn’t anticipate that. We’re planning for all possibilities,” he said, including the elimination of state desegregation funds of about $20 million a year.

PACT president Marty Nix — as is her custom — failed to return The Leader’s calls to her work and cell phones or respond to an e-mail request for a comment.

With the dismissal of the unions, Guess said the void in employee representation would be filled--as per state law--with personnel-policy committees, which have been formed by teachers and noncertified staff. The committees have already been challenged in Pulaski Circuit Court. The district is paying for legal representation of those committees.

Guess declined to characterize Kimbrell’s decision as a win for the district and a loss for the unions, saying instead: “Our proposals provided the opportunity to reduce expenditures to the budget as we need them and PACT and PASS proposals were much less likely to produce the results needed.”

Many of the union-proposed cuts would have expired at the end of the next school year, which Guess and Kimbrell said was insufficient.

“They (would have) left unusual benefits protected,” Guess said, citing among them excessive leave, severance pay and an unusual, uncertified professional-growth program.  


“My goal is to return control of the PCSSD to whom it belongs — the district’s patrons and a locally elected school board,” said Kimbrell, who lives in Cabot. “This will require steady financial belt tightening wherever possible and operational efficiency.  The focus must be on providing the best educational opportunities for the students of PCSSD.”

A press release that accompanied Kimbrell’s decision said, “Faced with declining fund balances, the district must cut $11 million from its fiscal 2013 budget. This includes $4 million in benefits provided for in the unions’ contracts. Some of these benefits are above what employees in other districts receive and are not required by state law. These cuts must be sustained in subsequent years in order for the PCSSD to remain financially solvent and provide an adequate and equitable education required by the Arkansas Constitution.”


Without cutting the budget as proposed, the district’s legal fund balance—sometimes called carryover—would be $32 million in the red by the end of the 2016-2017 school year, according to district and state projections.

The administration’s proposal included $6,667,680 in previously agreed upon reductions and additional reductions of $4,085,903 for 2012-2013, with additional cost reductions of $1,427,249 in 2013-2014 and $1,006,340 in 2014-2015.

The additional $4,085,903 includes cost savings from proposed modifications to the PACT and PASS Professional Negotiations Agreements.

The administration’s proposal projects cost reductions in the of $10.5 million in 2012-2013, $12.2 million in 2013-2014 and $13.2 million 2014-2015.

By law, a district’s school board has the authority to remove unions as bargaining agents. Since dissolving the PCSSD school board earlier this year, Kimbrell has acted as a one-man board who believes he has the authority to strip the unions of their bargaining role and to abrogate an existing contract

The unions have proven resilient in the past and quite litigious, so many observers expect them to sue to keep their contracts intact.

Guess said that Kimbrell’s instructions to implement his plan would result in cutting 77 teaching positions, of which 35 are already open due to retirement or resignations.


“My desired outcome,” Kimbrell wrote, “is that the (Arkansas Department of Education) and PCSSD be able to prove the following to the State Board:

“That PCSSD has corrected all indicators of fiscal distress;

“That PCSSD possesses a sufficient fund balance to operate in a fiscally secure and sustainable manner for years to come;

“That PCSSD can fully and completely fund its current desegregation obligations as set forth in Plan 2000 in pursuit of its efforts to attain unitary status; and

“That PCSSD can absorb a loss of, or significant reduction in, state desegregation funding.”
Action for the 2012-2013 school year is critical not only due to the requirements of Arkansas Code 6-20-1908, but because the district is projected to spend more than it takes in during the 2013-2014 school year, Kimbrell said.

The 2011-2012 ending legal balance includes one-time, nonrecurring property tax revenues of $15.1 million. Without this one-time infusion of revenues, the district would end this school year with a deficit of approximately $3 million.


Kimbrell’s letter explained that PACT/PASS appear to request that PCSSD defer important decisions until a later date, arguing that beyond salary freezes for the 2012-2013 school year, “[t]here is no urgency for anything more at the present time.”

The PACT/PASS proposal overlooks two key considerations, Kimbrell said.

“First, PCSSD is required, through its Plan 2000, to meet its own desegregation obligations, with or without state desegregation funding. PCSSD remains under court supervision with regard to nine separate components of its desegregation plan,” the commissioner said.

“One of the nine plan components requires PCSSD to improve several of its facilities. The first priority for PCSSD must be to become unitary in all of its operations, not for the benefit of the state’s budget, but for the benefit of the district’s students and patrons. PCSSD must be able to satisfy the ADE and the State Board that it possesses the financial resources to carry out its own desegregation obligations.

“Second, whether state desegregation funding ends in one year or several years hence, sound budgeting practices dictate that PCSSD should not depend upon state desegregation funding in order to continue its operations.

“PCSSD must be able to show that it can continue its operations for the benefit of its students with or without state desegregation funding,” Kimbrell continued.