Doubts, fears and suggestions are aired at forum about Fayette Schools budget cuts

jmadden@herald-leader.comMarch 6, 2014 

At a forum Thursday night to discuss a proposed multimillion-dollar budget cut to Fayette County Public Schools, teachers, parents and students expressed fears, ideas and solutions about the loss of funding.

The forum at Northeast Christian Church came about a month after district officials said they needed to trim $20 million from the school system's 2014-15 budget. The district is operating with $433 million this school year. Superintendent Tom Shelton scheduled the forum to hear feedback from the public.

District officials said about 375 people attended the forum. They sat at tables, and a moderator at each table wrote suggestions on flip charts. Shelton then passed around a microphone and a spokesperson was chosen to voice each group's points.

A chief concern was that the loss of programs and quality teachers would hurt student development. Others expressed concern about spending money wisely and proposed that cuts be made gradually. Several people said that a lack of communication about the cuts caused worry and "needless anxiety."

Andrew Brennen, a senior at Dunbar High School, and Haitt Allen, a senior at Tates Creek High School, handed out a fact sheet because "the facts weren't coming out completely, and there was not a clear message."

"You get a lot of fear mongering when it comes to education," Allen said. "There were teachers that said 'we cut 10 teachers,' or 'band and orchestra will get cut' ... Part of the problem was that teachers and administrators and people in the community were saying this was going to happen, and it wasn't."

Brennen and Allen said they are optimistic that the Fayette County Schools will remain in decent shape, but they expressed doubts as well.

"One of our biggest fears is that we kind of reduce ourselves in pitting these programs against each other and arguing about which programs to cut and not to cut," Brennen said. "Everyone doesn't want their program to be cut. We provide the best programs, and avoiding pitting these programs against each other is one of the things to remember in this discussion."

Eighty-nine percent of the school district's budget is devoted to salaries and benefits for the district's 5,815 employees. The district is looking at variables such as the number of employees, the number of hours and days worked, and the amount of pay. There is no number set for positions or programs that will be cut, district officials say.

"We need to make sure that our resources are allocated equitably based on needs," Shelton said. "When a student has larger barriers or obstacles to overcome, when a student doesn't have as many opportunities as another student does, then we need to allocate resources accordingly."

The district serves 41,000 students in 66 schools and special programs.

Each spring, schools receive an allocation outlining 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.

Cuts are needed because of national and state economic struggles over the past several years, and the district has lost significant state and federal funding. When grants have been cut, the district has picked up the costs.

While other districts have had significant layoffs, Fayette raised employee salaries in order to recruit and retain talented staff members, Shelton has said. The district is on solid financial ground, but expenses have continued to increase, and spending is outpacing revenue. Shelton said that in 2009-10, the fund balance of reserves in the general fund was $56.72 million; the fund balance is $36.5 million this school year.

"We have to look at ways that we can meet the needs of students and still keep our most valuable resource, which is our people," Shelton said. He added that days and hours worked can be reduced and schedules can be changed "before we would eliminate someone's job."

Without knowing what is being cut, some on Thursday found it difficult to pinpoint solutions.

"It was very hard to be able to have a dialogue that we need to have about analyzing the different priorities without being able to really know exactly what it was, but this was a good first step," said Mark Flores, whose 7-year-old son attends Rosa Parks Elementary School.

Flores was one of the first to raise a question about whether special eduction would see cuts, and he said he was pleased to see "more or less people had the same overarching goal that the school district remained committed to making sure that everybody had an equal opportunity to education."

"I wanted to make sure that everybody understood that this wasn't a one-size-fits-all type of approach, and that everything needed to be individualized, and great care needs to be taken in determining when and where these cuts are appropriate," Flores said.

The Fayette school board will consider the budget at its meeting May 5.

Justin Madden: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety

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