Some teachers huddled over a table in a corner while others used calculators and took notes Tuesday night during a Fayette County Schools forum for teachers to express opinions about the district's budget.
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 a $433 million budget this school year. Superintendent Tom Shelton scheduled the forum by request from district employees. A forum was held March 6 for about 375 parents, teachers and students.
A chief concern at last week's meeting was that the loss of programs and quality teachers would hurt student development. Others expressed concerns about spending money wisely and proposed that cuts be made gradually.
Tuesday night's crowd of about 225 sat at tables while a moderator at each table wrote suggestions on flip charts. Shelton then passed around a microphone, and a spokesperson from each group presented its concerns.
Ideas about student-teacher ratios, student achievement and job security were all written down and spoken into the microphone. One sign said: "Quality education provided by quality teachers." Another sign made it clear that teachers wanted "kids' needs to be met."
Suggestions for both forums will be posted on the district's budget website.
"The level of care and concern for our students is evident," said Henry Clay High School English teacher Jessica Andrews. "The educators in this county are dedicated."
Andrews, who has three children attending schools in the district, said she doesn't believe that transparency and timing "was the most effective," which resulted in fear.
"There seems to have been a level of surprise or concerns administratively that people have reacted with such passion," she said. "It was an underestimation on how much our school employees care about our kids. You just don't turn it on at school. You're a teacher all the time."
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.
"That sounds like a very large number, but again, it would make about one and half months payroll for us," Shelton said.
He added that it's uncommon to see a district spend money from its reserves for so long.
"We are not in a crisis situation now," Shelton said after receiving questions from the crowd. "We're not broke. We still have $36 million in our fund balance. But if we don't make some changes we're going to be broke in about two years."
Eighty-nine percent of the school district's budget is devoted to salaries and benefits for the district's 5,815 employees.
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 decide how to staff each school, setting class sizes, schedules and course offerings.
Shelton told the Herald-Leader that he submitted allocations about staff projections to school administrators this month, a requirement mandated by state law. He said that schools were given the projections with a possibility that they might be revised by the May 1 deadline. The projections are "based on enrollment for this upcoming year."
The budget must be submitted and given to the board by May 31.
Second District school board member Douglas W. Barnett said that the major priorities for the district are class sizes, closing the achievement gap, student engagement and the needs of each individual school.
"We'll use all of our resources in a manner in which it's going to help the most kids throughout the district," he said. "Everything has to be child focused. ... Every child has to be college and career ready. And that is the main focus, to make sure that we allocate the resources that that goal is met."