Friday, April 13, 2012

TOP STORY >> State to hear PCSSD budget proposals

Leader senior staff writer

With time growing short, state Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell wants to hear proposals from the Pulaski County Special School District and its two employee unions by 5 p.m. Monday before deciding what budget cuts to implement to help the financially-troubled district out of fiscal distress.

The district is in fiscal distress for financial mismanagement and declining legal fund balances. The state took it over in July, dissolving the school board and appointing Jerry Guess as superintendent.

Guess is trying to cut $11 million from the 2012-2013 budget, compared to this year’s budget. The district, along with the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers and the Pulaski Association of Support Staff, has agreed on at least $7 million worth of cuts. But the unions say the district wants all the rest to come from them, and he wants to change the existing contracts to get that money.

District administrators note that about 80 percent of the budget is salaries, so that’s where the cuts must come from.

“The district needs to reduce expenditures to state minimum standards to survive financially,” according to the narrative in the administration’s proposal. “The union leadership will not agree. This roadblock to realizing and constructing a budget for 2012-2013 that is acceptable to the state and conforms to a state law must be removed,” according to the administrator’s proposed plan.

Negotiations and mediation have ground to a halt.

In a letter Wednesday, Kimbrell asked the unions and the administration for staffing and fiscal practice recommendations to cut $11 million. Kimbrell also asked for recommendations on “building a legal fund balance to safeguard the fiscal integrity of the school district in future years and address district costs associated with attaining unitary status.”

“Arkansas Department of Education staff will take your recommendations into consideration in determining what binding recommendations it should impose upon the Pulaski County Special School District,” Kimbrell wrote.

Kimbrell, citing Arkansas legal code, says the department’s recommendations regarding staffing and fiscal practices “shall be binding upon the school district, the superintendent and the school board of directors.”

Kimbrell said Friday that he would review the proposals by later in the week. The district administration must “build a plan that we can recommend to the state board that can allow its release from the fiscal-distress designation,” he said.

Otherwise, the board has 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.

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

Also to be settled — probably in court — is whether the state can void parts of the existing contracts between the two unions and the school district.

Negotiations and mediation came to an impasse about a month ago. Kimbrell acted after a final mediation attempt last month 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 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.

The unions have agreed to forgo raises for the next school year and to pay more of their own health insurance premiums. But they don’t want to open up their current contracts to discuss other issues.

The administration wants to cut the length of employee contracts from 192 days to 190 days, wants to reduce days of leave and tighten up leave policy, stop paying severance pay, revisit nonteaching duties for which PCSSD teachers get additional pay, and also eliminate professional growth credits except for college classes.

The administration will eliminate 77 positions, mostly it hopes, through attrition.