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County schools seek state OK to cut $6.8 million in benefits

by Cynthia Howell | April 12, 2012 at 5:13 a.m.

— The state-controlled Pulaski County Special School District is seeking state approval of a proposal to remove millions of dollars of benefits from teacher and support-service employee contracts as a way to cut expenses in the coming 2012-13 school year.

Superintendent Jerry Guess and his staff have asked Arkansas Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell — who serves as the district’s board in the absence of a locally elected board — to approve a revised financial-improvement plan that would reduce, eliminate or phase out assorted employee benefits totaling $6.8 million.

The targeted benefits — including a shortening of the teacher work year by two days — are among the provisions that have been at the heart of recent, and so far unsuccessful, mediation sessions between the district and its employee unions, the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers and the Pulaski Association of Support Staff.

“We think we have a re- sponsibility to define a fiscal-distress relief plan that gets us to where we need to be,” Guess said Wednesday afternoon.

Marty Nix, president of the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers, received a copy of the district’s proposal for financial improvement Wednesday.

“It looks exactly like what they have planned all along,” she said of the list of proposed cuts from the budget and contracts. “I guess they wrote them up and included them in their [financial improvement] plan. It’s not very ‘good faith’ [negotiations].”

“We have a contract and a contract is a binding agreement,” Nix continued.

The 17,000-student Pulaski County Special district was initially classified as “fiscally distressed” last May by the state Board of Education because of audit findings of widespread financial mismanagement. The district was taken over by the state Department of Education in June, resulting in the dismissal of the superintendent and School Board. In February this year, the state identified declining reserves as a second indicator of fiscal distress.

The district has through the 2012-13 school year to abide by its improvement plan and show corrections or face sanctions such as annexation to one or more other districts.

Guess and his staff have identified about $7 million in cuts from district operations for next school year, including the elimination of 77 certified and support staff jobs, including a deputy-superintendent job, curriculum-coordinator positions and a handful of assistant-principal jobs. An additional $4.2 million is necessary in savings from the employee contracts, district leaders have said, adding that employee benefits in those contracts exceed the minimums required by the state.

Guess said Wednesday that he anticipates addressing legislators’ questions about the revised financial-improvement plan at a 1:30 p.m. meeting today of the Committee on Educational Institutions of the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee.

The district’s draft plan includes language suggesting that if the employee unions and district don’t reach an agreement on the budget cuts, the existing contracts that don’t expire until the 2014-15 school year could be nullified.

“If the stalemate with the union cannot be broken, the [professional-negotiations agreements] should not be followed in 2012-13,” the proposal states, adding that the agreements should be “formally voided and replaced with board-approved personnel policies.”

The professional-negotiations agreement is the document containing all of the working terms and benefits for employees. The provisions of the agreement, which is 102 pages plus 71 pages of appendices, are incorporated into each employee’s contract.

Guess said in a telephone interview that the proposed financial-improvement plan is not an effort to sever the district’s ties to the employee unions.

“It is not a tacit withdrawing of the union contract or the union recognition,” Guess said. “But it is an acknowledgment that these are the savings we think we can best institute to get the district into a solid financial position.

“I’m still committed to find a way to work together, for us to help each other save the district,” he added. “I’ve said all along that we are committed to working together to achieve a solution that will be supported by both sides.”

Asked at what point he might give up on reaching a mutual agreement and ask Kimbrell to approve replacing the contracts with a set of personnel policies, Guess said he didn’t know.

“I don’t know how to answer that,” he added and then noted that “personnel policies committees have been formed and that is because of the concerns of the teachers and support staff regarding whether or not PACT and PASS would continue to represent teachers and classified people.”

Personnel policies committees, commonly used in school districts statewide, are made up of employees elected by their colleagues and administrators to advise a school board on employee matters. Pulaski Special district employees elected members to two personnel committee members earlier this year.

The teacher and support staff associations are challenging in Pulaski County Circuit Court the legality of the newly formed committees.

The school district hired Little Rock attorney Joe Purvis to defend the committee members who were sued.

Nix, the president of the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers, said the employee associations gave district leaders a list of financial measures last week that she said would result in a balanced budget. “When the revenues exceed expenditures, that’s a balanced budget. It may not have put $20 million to $30 million [in reserves] but it saved a lot. There’s no reason for it all to be done at once.”

In the talks between the district and union leaders, which were aided by state and federal mediators, the union leaders offered to forgo across-the-board pay raises and increases in insurance contributions for the coming year.

But they have resisted reopening any other provisions of their negotiated contracts. Instead union leaders said they would be willing to freeze for one year some of the benefits through “memoranda of understanding” outside the contracts. That would preserve contract language for the long-term.

The district’s proposed financial-improvement plan calls for reducing pay to teachers for noninstructional duties, eliminating attendance incentive pay, eliminating one day per year of bereavement leave, eliminating severance pay awarded to teachers who retire and conforming district leave provisions to state law regarding employee sick leave.

Additionally, the proposal sent to Kimbrell calls for phasing out over multiple years the salary increases and professional-growth contracts that have been awarded teachers and support staff for taking district-taught courses as opposed to college courses.

“The district needs to reduce expenditures to state minimum standards to survive financially,” district leaders wrote in what they labeled as “the bottom line” of the financial-improvement plan. “The union leadership will not agree. This road block to realizing and constructing a budget for 2012-13 that is acceptable to the state and conforms to state law must be removed.”

Front Section, Pages 1 on 04/12/2012

Print Headline: County schools seek state OK to cut $6.8 million in benefits

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