Lewis on layoffs: 'Yes, that will happen'

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comMay 13, 2014 

Emphasizing they don't know the total number of employees or all the positions yet, Muscogee County School District officials acknowledged Tuesday that layoffs are part of the cuts they are making to balance next fiscal year's budget.

Asked what the chances are for layoffs, Superintendent David Lewis said, "Yes, that will happen."

Asked how many, he said, "Every day it's changing. We're meeting with people who are eligible for retirement. There are people who transfer in and out daily, so it's very much a state of flux, but we are starting with notifying those people that are in their first or second year, the non-tenured folks in the specific areas where we have overages."

Lewis' administration began planning for fiscal year 2015, which begins July 1, with a projected shortfall of $10 million to $11 million.

Since March, the Muscogee County School Board has approved the superintendent's central office reorganization, reduction of high school schedules from eight periods to seven periods and the consolidation of pre-kindergarten from 30 sites to nine sites. And the district's division chiefs are in their third round of searching for more cuts through zero-based budgeting, Lewis said.

That leaves the administration looking to save another $2.5 million to $3 million in the next three weeks, Lewis said. The preliminary FY 2015 budget is due to be presented to the board during a called meeting June 2. The board's next work session is June 9, and the final budget is scheduled to be voted on at the June 16 meeting.

This year's budget estimated $271 million in expenses (85 percent in salaries and benefits) and $251 million in revenue, so $20 million would have been needed from the reserve to balance the budget. That would have left the reserve fund balance at $21.4 million, enough to cover 28.9 days of expenses. The target is 60 days worth of reserve for the best bond rating.

The good news chief financial officer Sharon Adams shared Tuesday is that, because of cost-savings throughout the year, she expects the district to need only $10 million from the reserve fund - half of the $20 million originally estimated - by the time FY 14 closes June 30.

But the administration's budgeting for FY 15 assumes the $10 million in reserve not spent this year will be needed next year, so the original gap of $10 million to $11 million remained in the calculations and officials still need to find $2.5 million to $3 million to present a balanced budget.

The state hasn't given the district final word on its allotment for FY 15, Adams said, but she expects it will be $1 million less than last year's $144.5 million. Meanwhile, the rising cost of teacher retirement, salary steps, health insurance and utilities will combine for an estimated $10 million in increased expenses, she has said.

So compared to last year's cut of $6 million in state funding, the district is better off. But this budget process is the most grueling for these officials because the total of $155 million in state cuts to the district the past 13 years -- more than one full year's worth of state funding -- has caught up with the administration's ability to protect its personnel from layoffs.

"It's the accumulation of lots of things going back a decade," Lewis said. "At those times, there was an ability to maintain staff. That is no longer a luxury we enjoy."

Adams added that the board's budgeting priorities include an insistence on no furlough days. The district didn't have any furlough days this school year after absorbing a total of 23 furlough days the previous four years. So to save all staff from taking an income cut, some will have to lose their jobs.

"It's one or the other," Lewis said.

But there won't be another round of surprise school closings this budget cycle, Lewis vowed. Last year, residents were outraged when Edgewood Elementary and Marshall Middle schools were put on the chopping block in May. They accused the administration of not allowing enough time for public debate. District officials blamed the late notice on the state's delay in finalizing the funding cuts.

At the end of this school year, Cusseta Road and Muscogee elementary schools will close and merge into Dorothy Height Elementary, set to open in August, and Thirtieth Avenue Preschool will close and merge into Fox Elementary as part of the pre-K consolidation. Those closings already have been approved.

The Ledger-Enquirer reported last month that the Patterson Planetarium's two employees said a district human resources official told them their facility was closing due to budget cuts, but Lewis contended again Tuesday that decision hasn't been finalized.

Asked for the next time schools will be closed, Lewis said, "I'll be announcing that decision later this calendar year and going into early next calendar year. There more than likely will be more school closings; I'm just not ready to tell you where and when."

Although officials are planning for the district's enrollment of about 32,500 to grow by another 500 to 600 students for next school year, the growth isn't always where the schools have space. So too many buildings will remain under capacity, they said.

Lewis outlined three long-term financial goals for the district:

• Return the reserve fund balance to 60 days, which would be about $44.5 million based on this year's daily operation cost of $741,000.

• Address salary disparities.

• "Right-size" the district so cost-of-living raises can be given across the system. Some employees, Lewis said, haven't received a raise since 2009.

To achieve those goals, Lewis said, he instituted what he called three "philosophical shifts" in the administration:

• Give principals the flexibility of using one discretionary unit (the equivalent of a full-time teaching position) as they see fit.

• Ensure no personnel are reassigned to subject areas in which they are not certified or qualified.

• Offer elective courses in middle school and high school based on the students' interests instead of a prescribed list. For example, the district's survey of students prompted a reduction in Japanese teachers in high school but an expansion of the Spanish programs in middle school.

"We're re-conceptualizing," said Kathy Tessin, the district's chief human resources officer. "We're not scheduling around what the adults can teach; we're trying to schedule around what the kids want and need."

All of which means some teachers are in jobs the district no longer can justify, Lewis said. So the administration is trying to first reduce staff through retirements and attrition. But some non-tenured personnel already are being told the district doesn't have a position for them next school year, Lewis said. Tenure is defined as having less than three years in the district or coming with three years of service in the state but having less than one year in the district. Thursday is the state-mandated deadline to issue contracts this year to non-tenured teachers, Tessin said.

"We want to let people know if there's probably not going to be a vacancy in that specific area so they can take this time to possibly find other employment with other districts," Lewis said. "To string them along for another six, eight weeks, I just don't think that would be ethically and morally the right thing to do. So we want to tell them up front."

Regardless of budget cuts, Tessin noted, the district terminates personnel every year because of performance issues. But she estimated only 2 percent of the layoffs this year will be based on performance. If the district can't get the necessary number of layoffs through non-tenured personnel, then tenured staff could be cut through what's known as a Reduction in Force. The criteria, in order of priority as stated in the district's policy, would be:

• Performance on annual evaluation.

• Repeated performance concerns.

• Maintaining the quality of all district programs, meaning certification status can be taken into consideration as well as "specific experience needed in vacant positions and extracurricular activity support needs."

Only after these three criteria levels are exhausted can seniority be used to produce the necessary number of layoffs, the policy states.

Regardless of the procedure and whom it affects, Lewis laments having to layoff anyone at all.

"It is painful, and it's something none of us like to do," he said, "but it's something we have to do to be fiscally responsible and maximize the resources to ensure that our students have what they need to be successful."

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter@MarkRiceLE.

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