Fayette schools chief says no programs will be eliminated as part of 5% budget cut

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comFebruary 24, 2014 

Fayette County Schools Superintendent Tom Shelton reiterated Monday that no programs would be eliminated as part of a proposed $20 million budget cut and that most staffing cuts would be handled through attrition.

"We're not talking about ending programs, eliminating things. We're talking about a 5 percent reduction," said Shelton, who spoke to reporters before a school board meeting.

The superintendent wanted to address public concern that stemmed from news of the proposed $20 million budget cut, specifically what programs or jobs would be affected in an effort to balance the budget.

He addressed those concerns throughout the day. He responded to emails, and the district sent out news releases. Shelton also addressed it at the board meeting, which was attended by parents and teachers.

Marsha Strein, a parent, cautioned members that staffing cuts would affect students.

Afterward, Strein said she had several questions and hoped the board would slow down and make deliberate decisions.

Shelton has said the district is taking more time for that reason. Fayette County is not in a financial crisis, the superintendent said, but he wanted to make adjustments "before we reach a crisis state."

Earlier Monday, in response to mounting criticism, Shelton pulled a new formula for schools from the agenda for the school board meeting. He pledged to get public input before further action.

"Despite the best intentions of the people who have worked hard to develop the sound proposals put forth in the new staffing procedures, distrust and paranoia have unfortunately led to widespread speculation and false rumors that have upset our families, students, employees and community at large," Shelton said Monday in an email to parents.

Monday night, board member Amanda Ferguson asked Shelton why the financial situation had "come so suddenly."

Shelton said he became concerned about a year ago and had been working with consultants who are helping the districts spend more wisely. Shelton has said the district had to spend more local money because state and federal funding had decreased.

Shelton has said school districts around the state have had to cut their budgets drastically as national and state economies have struggled during the past several years.

Because the district had a reserve to cover state and federal cuts, Fayette County Public Schools was spared from making decisions about cutting teachers or eliminating programs. Officials knowingly dipped into the reserves to maintain innovative programs, district spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall has said.

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. That represents an 8 percent surplus, and the district is required by the state to keep a minimum 2 percent surplus, Shelton has said.

While other school districts had significant layoffs, Fayette County raised employee salaries to recruit and retain the most talented staff to serve students, Shelton has said. He said it has taken seven years "to get to this point," and the district has "weathered it for a long time."

Shelton has not said how many positions will be cut. However, district officials have said that rumors about cuts to band, orchestra and arts programs were unfounded.

Shelton said the district was considering reductions in spending — in every school and district program — in the range of 3 percent to 10 percent. He said not making cuts was not an option.

Among the suggestions he received, Shelton said, was cutting up to 21/2 days from the district calendar, but no decision had been made on that. He said the board won't get a tentative budget for the 2014-15 school year until May.

Regardless of what is cut, Shelton said, it would not compromise student achievement.

"If we could absorb the entire cut at the district level, we would do that. But that is mathematically impossible. Even if we shut down the district office, it would not be enough to balance the budget," Shelton said. "And there is no way that a district with 41,000 students, 66 schools and special programs, and 5,815 employees can function without an administrative staff to run payroll, pay the utility bills and assign subs when teachers are absent."

District officials have said 88 percent of the Fayette County Public Schools' spending goes to salaries and benefits for the district's 5,815 employees.

"We cannot balance the budget without impacting our employees," Shelton said in a news release. "We face tight timelines and strict deadlines under state law. But we cannot move so quickly that we risk breaking faith with the people we serve."

The superintendent said the staffing changes would be on hold "until we have time to bring more people into this conversation."

Shelton will host a public forum at 6 p.m. March 6 at the district's main offices, 701 East Main Street, to answer questions and gather input. The district also will establish a Web page, FCPS.net/budget, where officials will make information available throughout the process.

Board chairman John Price said Monday that members supported Shelton's decision to hold off until he had more input from parents, staff and others.

"We want everybody to understand the situation we find ourselves in," Price said. With the public forum March 6 and the website, "everybody should have ample opportunity to give us additional input."

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

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