Performance, not seniority, top criterion for teacher layoffs in Muscogee County

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comJune 3, 2013 

Performance, not seniority, should be the top criterion to determine which teachers are laid off as part of the Muscogee County School District’s budget cuts, the administration recommended during Monday night’s called school board meeting.

Also during the meeting, the school board:

Approved the tentative budget for fiscal year 2014, which starts July 1. The board is scheduled to vote on the final budget during its June 17 meeting. The budget’s expenditures in the general fund total $270,596,469, a decrease of 3 percent ($8.7 million) from this year’s original budget. The FY14 budget includes no furlough days; this year’s original budget had five but ended up with three.

Approved the sale of the historic building on 29th Street that used to house the former Columbus Industrial High School, the forerunner to Jordan Vocational High School, for $700,000 to Beneficial Development LLC, a Sarasota, Fla., company that plans renovate the building to construct an independent senior living center with about 75 units.

Board chairman Rob Varner of District 5 also gave an update on the search to hire a superintendent.

Reduction in force

The legal terms for the layoff plan is called a RIF, a reducation in force. Kathy Tessin, MCSD’s chief human resources officer, has said the RIF could mean laying off as many as 40 teachers. Monday night, however, she said, “At this time, we can say positively it will be less than that.”

The final number will be part of a more specific recommendation at next Monday’s 5 p.m. work session, Tessin said. The board is scheduled to vote on the proposal at its 6 p.m. June 17 meeting.

A state law passed in 2012 prohibits school boards from using length of service as the primary or sole factor in determining who is laid off. Instead, the law says, school boards must consider the teacher’s performance as the primary factor, “one measure of which may be student achievement.”

Tessin emphasized the faculty from the closed Edgewood Elementary and Marshall Middle schools and the Academic Success Center won’t be targeted in the RIF; the layoffs will come from a district-wide pool. But attrition will spare certain areas, such as counselors and media specialists. Special-education teachers also won’t be affected, she said.

So the layoffs will come from the following positions, Tessin said: elementary education (K-5); middle school English/language arts, social studies, science and math; high school English, social studies and study skills; and CTAE/connections. A teacher’s position will be based on the job held during the majority of the 2012-13 school year, she said.

The first criterion will be teachers who received an “ineffective” grade on their annual evaluation. The second criterion will be repeated performance concerns, as evidenced by two out of the past three years being “needs improvement” or “unsatisfactory” on an annual evaluation. The third criterion will be based on whether teachers are qualified for the needed positions. The final criterion will be seniority in MCSD.

Board member Naomi Buckner of District 4 said any “ineffective” teacher “should be gone already.”

Interim superintendent John Phillips responded, “I doubt very seriously there will be many in Category 1, but we want to make sure.”

Buckner and board member Beth Harris of District 8 asked about the RIF criteria that will be used for employees who aren’t teachers. Tessin said she will present that during the work session.

FY 14 budget

Sharon Adams, MCSD’s chief financial officer, noted Georgia’s state budget for fiscal year 2014 allows K-12 spending to be $7.2 billion, which is 18 percent less than FY09. MCSD’s state funding for FY14, $144,167,143, will be $6 million less than this year. It is even below the FY05 allotment, Adams said. MCSD also is taking a $6.4 million hit in equalization funding from the state.

Overall, MCSD’s state funding is projected to be reduced $21,238,578, bringing the decrease over 12 years to $141 million — equal to about a full year of state funding for MCSD.

The good news is that the local tax digest is predicted to increase 2 percent through the area’s economic growth and without the school board raising the millage rate. But that increase in local revenue is offset by the 4 percent loss in combined state and federal revenue. The district’s health insurance spending also is expected to increase.

Among the measures MCSD has taken or plans to reduce the budget are: outsourcing custodial services in some schools; increasing class sizes; closing Edgewood Elementary and Marshall Middle schools; moving alternative programs to Edgewood; moved Academic Success Center students back to home schools and closed the program; discontinued the adult education program; moved year-round schools back to traditional calendar; moved school-based personnel to four-day (10 hours per day) workweek in June and July; reduced capital projects set-aside from $4 million to $1 million; stopped buying new buses; delayed buying new textbooks; reduced funding for supplies, computers, travel and building maintenance; reviewing all vacant positions.

The budget uses $20 million of fund balance, which is projected to be $32.8 million. The remaining $12.8 million fund balance equates to enough money to operate the district for 16 days.

“We’re going to have to be prepared to make some hard decisions next year,” said board member John Wells of District 2.

To that end, Phillips said, the administration plans to recommend cuts for FY15 as early as December, including closing more schools and possibly more layoffs.

“It’s really heartbreaking in many ways,” Phillips said. “But, if we want to have a long-term plan and long-term resolve for our problems, it’s dealing with it now.”

The board voted 7-1 to approve the tentative budget. At-large member Cathy Williams was absent. Harris was the lone member to vote against the budget. She said she still has too many unanswered questions.

Property sale

The board unanimously approved the sale of the 29th Street property. Phillips said MCSD received three appraisals: $1 million, $900,000 and $520,000.

“We felt $700,000 was a great price for that, particularly considering the amount of money needed for it to be a viable facility,” he said.

Phillips said the developer already has shared the plan with residents in the neighborhood, “and they are ecstatic about it.”

The building houses two programs: the woodshop for the Academic Success Center, which the district also closed this year, and the Sara Spano Clothing Bank, which will move along with the Woodall and Daniel alternative programs to the closed Edgewood Elementary.

Before the meeting, Myles Caggins, the district’s chief of operations and facilities, said the sale of about 5.745 acres includes 2.986 acres of the land around the Waverly Terrace buildings that house the Early College Academy and the Head Start program -- but the district will continue to own those buildings. The purchaser plans to seek approval to rezone 2.759 acres to increase the number of apartments that can be housed on the site. If the rezoning is approved, the 2.986 acres will revert to MCSD without cost, Caggins said.

Superintendent search

After a closed session of about 1 hour and 15 minutes, Varner said the board considered another batch of superintendent applications and decided to interview some new candidates.

He declined to disclose the number of new applicants or the number of new candidates to be interviewed. He also said he doesn’t know when those interviews will be scheduled.

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