Fayette County school board member walks out of meeting, citing frustration with Shelton

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comFebruary 19, 2014 

Fayette County School Board member Amanda Ferguson said she walked out Tuesday during a specially called board meeting about the district's budget and proposed staff position cuts because she was frustrated and annoyed with Superintendent Tom Shelton's responses.

The district is looking at cutting an undetermined number of positions to address needed budget cuts. The board will be asked at its Feb. 24 meeting to approve a policy that would ensure that staffing allocations take place in accordance with state law. The board does not have authority over the staffing formulas. Determining the formulas is an administrative function that the board does not vote on, according to Shelton.

Ferguson said she didn't think board members had been given enough information.

On Wednesday, Ferguson told the Herald-Leader she was annoyed that Shelton "keeps saying that he could have just gone in his office and closed the door and come up with a budget for May" without asking the board.

Ferguson said she responded to Shelton by saying, "Then why are we here? Why are you asking the board for anything? ... Either you need us to approve it or you don't.

"He pretty much intimated that he was going to do it anyway. I don't feel like my questions are getting answered. I feel like the superintendent is going to do it whether the board wants it or not, and that's my frustration."

In an email response late Wednesday, Shelton said, "I wanted to explain that I believe there were miscommunications at our meeting which I take responsibility for and that I have already contacted the board member to attempt to respond and resolve."

Shelton said district officials "have answered every question as it has been received and will continue to do so."

Tuesday's meeting was set to give the board information, and no votes were taken.

The Herald-Leader asked for a PowerPoint presentation that Shelton showed during the meeting. He declined, saying it was "a draft working document."

At a planning meeting Feb. 10, the board discussed school staffing adjustments that could trim at least $11 million of the $20 million that Shelton had said needed to be cut from the district's 2014-15 budget.

Lu Young, chief academic officer, has said the district was looking at cutting an undetermined number of positions, which could be handled through attrition and by not renewing the contracts of some teachers who have worked for the district for less than five years.

Young said cuts were not expected among staff employed by the district for more than five years. She has said district officials have identified $4 million in other cuts, some of which involve a 5 percent reduction in spending at Central Office.

Ferguson said she was concerned that Shelton had said that if the district keeps dipping into its reserves, it would be operating at a deficit.

"How did we get to this point?" Ferguson asked. "Why is this the first we have heard about this?"

She said Shelton keeps saying the district is going to be transparent.

"We are anything but transparent," she said.

Ferguson said she was receiving questions from residents about the status of band and orchestra positions after board documents about the guidelines showed those positions marked out.

"When the music people look at it, and they see their positions marked through and not mentioned anywhere again, they get concerned," she said.

Additionally, Lafayette High School band director Charles Smith said he went to Central Office on Tuesday to attend the meeting because he had some concerns that a proposed policy change would cut positions for band and orchestra teachers. Smith said he left before the meeting because Shelton told him it was "inappropriate" for Smith to be there.

Smith said Shelton told him the board would be "hesitant to talk openly about staffing if there was a staff member there, and it was inappropriate for a staff member to be in there when they were talking about staffing."

Smith said he told Shelton he was at the meeting on his personal leave time, with the permission of his principal. He said Shelton ultimately told Smith that he could attend because he was on his own time and that it was an open meeting. Still, Smith said, Shelton told him it was "inappropriate and how disappointed he was in me."

Smith said he was shocked at Shelton's response because Smith had attended other board work sessions. He said he was just going to observe and not ask questions publicly during the meeting.

"There is limited information about what's going on and, ... that leaves us in limbo."

In response, Shelton said, "He and I have different perceptions of the conversation. I very clearly did tell him I was disappointed that he would take leave from school to attend a board work session, but as he indicated, I told him it was an open meeting and he could attend."

Smith said Fayette County has some of the best band and orchestra programs in the state. He said elementary band programs build a foundation for high school band programs, and he was concerned that elementary band programs might be cut.

Smith said that typically, when there are cuts, "they will come after arts programs, band and orchestra." He said that causes concern and anxiety among teachers and parents.

Shelton said Wednesday that a staffing task force has not finished its work on some parts of the staffing formula, in which band and orchestra would be included. However, he said, every school would continue to have band and orchestra programs.

Shelton said "nothing has been decided" about districtwide programs such as band and orchestra, but there is "speculation and rumor."

"The district will continue to have band and orchestra in every elementary, middle and high school," he said. "It will continue to be funded as a districtwide program, which means the schools cannot convert those positions."

District officials said they were focusing first on proposed changes to the staffing formulas because, under state law, school councils have to be given their staffing allocations by March 1.

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: (859) 231-3409. Twitter: @vhspears.

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