Fayette schools, parents look for budget solutions that won't harm students or staff

jmadden@herald-leader.comMarch 14, 2014 

Maxwell Elementary school principal Heather Allen Bell wants to hear from parents and staff before she makes decisions about curriculum changes and potential staff cuts at her school.

So, Bell hosted a meeting this week in Maxwell's cafeteria to allow parents and staff to weigh in.

"Our families sat down and they actually looked at our data and wrote out options of things that would meet our kids' needs," she said. "We want to know what our families value ... parents are terrific at helping problem solve when they're informed of the data."

Last month, Fayette County Public Schools Superintendent Tom Shelton said the district had to cut $20 million — or about 5 percent — from its $433.1 million budget. Staffing is a key part of the budget because it makes up nearly 88 percent of the $433 million budget.

Bell, like many other principals in the district, has been trying to figure out the best way to trim her staff without affecting students.

That's because Shelton sent administrators at the district's 66 schools staffing allocations, which determine how to staff each school. The allocations, which set class sizes, schedules and course offerings, are based on projected student enrollment numbers.

More students could mean more teachers; fewer students would mean less teachers.

State law requires Shelton to give his administrators the allocations by March 1 every year. Shelton told the Herald-Leader he gave administrators the projected enrollment for next school year and used the existing formula to determine a tentative staffing allocation. Schools were also shown what staffing levels would be with a 5 percent cut, a worst-case scenario.

Staffing models will be returned in April. The revised allocation will be returned no later than May 1, district officials have said.

"Our suggestion is that they plan the budget conservatively, and hopefully it will be better," Shelton said.

Maxwell might lose three or four positions — one and a half certified teachers and two non-instructional positions (office workers, assistants or cafeteria workers). At Wednesday's meeting some parents said they would volunteer in the cafeteria and manage traffic in an effort to ease school cuts.

These are tough decisions, but Bell said she is trying to make effective moves.

For example, a part-time teacher had been assigned to the Gifted and Talented program this year. Bell was able to replace an assistant, giving the school's Gifted and Talented program a full-time teacher.

Bell said students won't be negatively affected by the cuts because she plans to merge positions.

"Same process from last year, it's no different," said Bell. "We've had some minimal cuts to our staffing. Although it's not completely set, it could be adjusted, but we still sit down and use the same process. We're going to be able to meet our kids' needs, because we're the ones who have the power at the school level to rearrange what we have to suit our school."

Finding solutions

As administrators have begun working on staffing, rumors and speculation continued circulating this week. That has been the case since Shelton first announced the cuts, prompting district officials to hold public forums, where concerns have been expressed by parents, teachers and students. Many said student achievement would be harmed by the loss of programs and jobs and an increase in student-teacher ratios.

Others expressed concerns about spending money wisely and proposed that cuts be made gradually. Some teachers suggested taking a pay cut in order to save jobs and minimize the impact on students.

At this point, no final decisions have been made about the budget, which will be finalized May 31.

Much of the district's money comes from local taxes, such as property, home, gas and utilities. The rest comes from the state and building rentals offered by the schools to outsiders, including churches or organizations that rent school gyms.

Eighty-eight percent of the school district's budget is devoted to salaries and benefits for the district's 5,815 employees.

Teachers account for 3,000 of those jobs, Shelton told the Herald-Leader.

A 5 percent cut would be about 150 teachers, he said.

District officials are optimistic that they can make the 5 percent cut through attrition.

In 2013, for example, 75 teachers retired; 120 resigned.

It is possible, Shelton said, that staffing allocations won't need to be reduced at all.

"The reality is, we will be somewhere in-between," he said. "But we won't know that until we get the budget from the board."

Meanwhile, Shelton said that the number of days worked by all employees is under consideration.

Members of the Fayette County Education Association, a voluntary association that represents teachers, are concerned about "reductions that will directly impact kids," president Jessica Hiler said Friday.

"We want to keep the same supports around our kids," Hiler said. "Keeping our student/teacher ratio under the state average is a priority from staff and the community. Of course, people are worried about their individual jobs, but are willing to take individual reductions if it means keeping folks that work with kids every day."

Hiler said that while it's correct that final decisions about cuts have not been made, certain employees have been notified about proposed reductions.

Special education administrative staff, or facilitators, who don't directly work with students and special education diagnosticians — who test students — have been told that those jobs will be combined into one called Achievement and Compliance Coach. The Fayette County School Board discussed the change Monday, and board approval is pending.

District leaders met with the people who are currently working as facilitators and diagnosticians before the proposal was taken to the board, Shelton said. The proposal related to the diagnosticians and facilitators is an example of looking to reduce staff who do not provide direct service to students, Shelton said. He also confirmed that district officials are looking at the district's number of special education aides, which is higher than federal recommendations.

"These are administrative positions with overlap, and the district is looking for ways to keep cuts as far away from kids as possible," Shelton said.

Hiler said district officials "have done a good job engaging us at this point, but ... we want every aspect of this process to be transparent to the staff and community."

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

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