Fayette school officials address questions about proposed $20 million cut

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comFebruary 21, 2014 

Superintendent Tom Shelton explained why budget cuts don't affect construction.

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Sharon Mofield-Boswell sent an email earlier this week to Fayette County Public Schools leaders expressing concern about the proposed $20 million cut to the 2014-15 budget.

"My concern is that these cuts will primarily impact our kids at the classroom and school based levels. Larger class sizes and fewer staff is a recipe for failure," Mofield-Boswell wrote to board members and upper administration. "I implore the board to consider an opportunity to hear student and parent voice before they pass a budget that all stakeholders have not seen or had a chance to review."

Mofield-Boswell is among the parents and school staff who are worried that the district is looking at cutting positions at schools. In addition, speculation has surfaced about the district possibly eliminating arts, band and orchestra or its gifted and talented programs. District officials have tried to quash those concerns, saying they are unfounded.

Still, school officials have been peppered with emails and messages on the district's Facebook page. Parents want more answers about the proposed cuts.

The concerns stem from the fact that the district has not publicly provided many details about proposed cuts.

Superintendent Tom Shelton has said that the district will have to trim $20 million from its 2014-15 budget, which is about 5 percent of the district's general fund spending, in order to present the school board with a balanced budget in May. He said that will happen without compromising student achievement.

On Tuesday, Amanda Ferguson, a school board member, walked out during a specially called board meeting about the district's budget and proposed staff position cuts. Ferguson said she walked out because she was frustrated and annoyed with Shelton's responses.

Earlier this week, Shelton told the Herald-Leader that district officials have not finished developing the recommended reductions. A tentative budget won't be presented to the board until May.

Some proposed cuts were given earlier this month to school administrators, but Shelton said those numbers are no longer accurate and continue to change.

The superintendent has said that everything is under consideration as the district looks to balance its budget. However, Shelton said in an email Wednesday to several community leaders that he was troubled by speculation that the district intends to eliminate band and orchestra or the arts.

"We stand firm in our commitment to have band and orchestra programs at every elementary, middle and high school in Fayette County," he wrote.

Shelton said district officials intend to continue band and orchestra as district-wide programs, meaning they cannot be changed at the school-level.

"We will continue to have band and orchestra at every school, but we may be able to do so with some savings in staffing that would not impact band and orchestra teachers with job rights," he said.

While those programs appear to be safe, Shelton said there is "no way to trim $20 million without affecting our employees."

Losing positions

Shelton said 89 percent of the total budget is devoted to staff salaries and benefits for the district's 5,815 employees. That cost is based on the number of employees, the number of hours and days worked, and the amount of pay earned. The district is looking at each of those variables in order to reduce the budget, he said.

Shelton said the district does not have a number for the positions that will be cut.

If the district could absorb all of the cuts at the Central Office level, Shelton said they would.

"But that is simply impossible," Shelton said.

Less than 10 percent of the total district operating budget is dedicated to district-wide services, which includes school buses and diesel fuel, bus drivers and monitors, utilities and maintenance. That also includes central administrative functions like payroll, accounts payable, human resources and support for teaching and learning, Shelton said.

The superintendent explained that each spring, schools receive an allocation that outlines the number of positions each school has earned based on projected student enrollment numbers. School-based decision making councils then determine how to staff each school, setting class sizes, schedules and course offerings.

A committee of principals, district leaders, and education association representatives has worked for the past several months to determine how the district can trim spending while not impacting students.

The first task for that group was to look at the school council allocations, because under state law the district has to make those determinations before March 1.

Shelton said the staffing change would likely increase the staff-to-student ratios by 1 student and change the way teacher aides are allocated. High schools also would get one librarian instead of two, said district spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall. And there is a recommendation to reduce the number of contract days for librarians. They currently are paid to work 20 days longer than the instructional school year; the proposal would take them to 10 additional days.

Although no changes have been decided in special education, Shelton said, district officials might look at the number of special education aides. They also could reduce staff who do not provide direct service to children, Deffendall said.

Shelton's email said district officials think they can absorb the staff reductions through normal voluntary attrition and "would not expect any reduction in force to occur." He said district officials don't expect to cut groups of employees who have been with the district long enough to earn tenure or job rights.

Sources of revenue

With the Herald-Leader, Shelton addressed two questions that repeatedly came up this week: How did the district get to the point where it needed to cut $20 million and how can the district discuss staff and program cuts and still find money to build a new high school.

In December, the board approved the purchase of land for Fayette County's sixth traditional public high school. The $75.8 million school is proposed for a 49-acre site at 1970 Winchester Road near Patchen Wilkes Drive.

Construction of the 1,800-student high school, which officials say is needed as a result of enrollment growth, could begin in July 2015 and would continue through June 2017.

Shelton said the district's money for staff and construction comes from "two completely separate funding sources that cannot be interchanged."

"In other words, we have dedicated funds for buildings and debt service that cannot be used for operating expenses," he said.

As for why the cuts are necessary, Shelton said that as national and state economies have struggled over the past several years, the school district has lost significant state and federal funding. When federal grants have been cut, the district has picked up the cost of those positions and programs.

While other school districts have had significant layoffs, he said the district raised employee salaries in order to recruit and retain talented staff members. The district is on solid financial ground, Shelton said, but expenses have continued to increase and spending is outpacing revenue.

Shelton confirmed for the Herald-Leader that in 2009-10, the fund balance or reserves in the general fund was $56.72 million; the fund balance is $36.5 million this school year.

Maintaining a healthy fund balance is how the district has escaped cuts in the past and officials knowingly dipped in the reserves in order to maintain innovative programs, Deffendall said.

Meanwhile, district officials have told the board that there are other issues that could affect the 2014-15 budget, including whether state lawmakers restore funding cuts to education.

Additionally, Shelton said he will ask the board in August to approve tax rates on real and personal property that will generate a 4 percent increase in revenue. District officials will have to wait until late July or early August to receive the total property valuation for Fayette County and determine what the actual rate change would be, Deffendall said.

The district's budget would be built on a 4 percent increase in revenue in order to cover increasing costs of energy, utilities, and employee benefits. The revenue will not be directly allocated to cover construction, but taking a 4 percent increase will positively impact the district's ability to bond projects, such as the new high school and the new elementary schools.

Whatever decisions are made in the coming months, Shelton said students will be at the forefront.

"In the Fayette County Public Schools we believe in educating the whole child, which means we embrace the importance of art, world language and music in a full and rich curriculum," Shelton said in his email. "We will not sacrifice those priorities for our children or our community."

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

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