Schools superintendent presents suggestions for budget savings

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By Angye Morrison

It was standing room only at the Gadsden County School Board workshop last Tuesday night, and parents and teachers present expressed concerns regarding rumored school closings and job loss.

The workshop was the third in a series aimed at developing suggestions to trim the district’s budget in light of heavy state cuts due to the current economic climate. The workshops were designed to be a forum for presentation of those suggestions, and it was emphasized by the superintendent, board members and members of an appointed committee that the items discussed were only suggestions; no formal recommendations have been made

The committee, appointed by Superintendent Reginald James, presented its suggestions last month, and included among them were school closings, redistricting, salary reductions, job eliminations, elimination of programs such as art and music, contract reductions and eliminations, maximizing class size and reduction of transportation costs.

At last week’s workshop, James presented his suggestions, based on input from board members and the committee. Due to a net change in state, local and federal funds per expected Legistlative action, James said he expects a $1,027,897 shortfall, in addition to a 3 percent reserve required by the state, which will total $1.2 million. The district must also plan for fixed cost increases on items such as health, worker’s compensation and property insurance, expected to total $500,000.

“I want to thank the board and the committee for their input,” James said. “I want to say again, these are suggestions. It’s fluid, it could change. What we have now is based on what we know now.”

James listed the following strategies in order to bring the budget into alignment:

• Maximize revenue by seeking flexibility in all categorical funding and using $100,000 in unreserved funds.

• Move Gadsden Elementary Magnet School to become a “school within a school” at St. John Elementary School. One wing of SJES would be used to hose the students, and the portable classrooms would be utilized to accomodate additional classroom needs. The would save the district $240,000.

“We felt this was the best-case scenario for Gadsden Elementary Magnet School,” James said. “We are not getting rid of the concept of the school or its identity. We are just moving the school.”

• Maximize class size to constitutional standards, and eliminate 37 positions from the district’s general fund for a savings of $1,225,000.

• Remove behavior specialist positions from the general fund and seek alternative funding for positions. Savings of $360,000.

• Remove non-ESE paraprofessionals or teachers from the general fund and seek alternative federal funding for positions in IDEA or Title I for a savings of $400,000.

• Revise policies and procedures in transportation to cut cost, and examine options for updating bus fleet. Savings of $300,000.

Under consideration is the possibility of negotiating a lease option, which would provide 38 buses, leased for a 5-year period. Such a lease would save the district $100,000 per year, and the only cost to the district would be fuel, oil and tires. The board was scheduled to meet in a workshop on this option earlier this week.

• Move reading coaches to reading teacher positions, and use flexibility in the general fund reading plan dollars for a savings of $220,000.

• Suspend payment of annual sick leave (item must be negotiated with teacher union officials) for a general fund savings of $225,000.

• Reduce contracts for grounds maintenance to cutting grass on district properties to once every two weeks instead of weekly for a savings of $70,000.

• Continue furlough of five days from applicable employee contracts (must be negotiated with union). No additional savings since this was initiated in the current fiscal year.

• No step increases for employees (subject to negotiation). No additional savings to general fund.

• All retirees who return to work will be paid beginning salary schedule rates (subject to union negotiation).

If all of these items are approved by the board, the total cost savings would be $3,040,000.

Also discussed was the reduction of stops made by school buses. Board member Isaac Simmons asked the superintendent to look at that prior to making his final recommendation.

“That’s a very delicate process,” James said, adding that it has been looked at in the past, and he made the decision against reducing the number of stops at that time because the process to do so has to be done by hand and is time consuming.

Parents, teachers and students approached the podium during the public commentary portion of the workshop.

Chris Bailey, East Gadsden High School senior and student school board member, reported that he had talked with his peers and they had also discussed ways they felt the budget could be cut.

“We thought that if the parents of each student, and there’s about 6,000 students in Gadsden County, could donate $5 per student, that would bring in $30,000 to the district.

Roosevelt Rogers III, whose daughter is a student at GEMS, asked for a meeting to clarify the strategies to be used as the school is moved to SJES, if that is voted in.

A meeting is scheduled for Monday night, at GEMS, beginning at 6 p.m.

Others approached the podium asking for specifics on job cuts and school closings.

James said his suggestions as presented were what he felt is the “best-case scenario” for the district.

“(These suggestions don’t) change the dynamic of the district. A lot of hours went into this to not impact students, lose teachers or close schools,” he said.

The superintendent will present his formal recommendation in the coming weeks to the board, and the board is expected to vote at that time. The next regular school board meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. April 28.