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State gets 2 plans to cut costs

School district has to find $11 million by Cynthia Howell | April 17, 2012 at 4:19 a.m.

— The Pulaski County Special School District and its two employee unions submitted to state Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell by Monday’s deadline conflicting proposals for cutting about $11 million in costs in the state-controlled, fiscally distressed district.

In a letter late last week, Kimbrell “respectfully request[ed]” that the school district, the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers and the Pulaski Association of Support Staff provide to him “specific, written recommendations on how the staffing and the fiscal practices of the [district] should be modified in order to realize $11 million in cost savings by the end of the 2012-13 school year.”

Kimbrell told the two sets of parties that the Arkansas Department of Education staff will use the proposals in deciding“what binding recommendations” to impose on the district.

The Pulaski County Special district of 17,000 students and 3,000 employees is classified by the state as fiscally distressed because of past financial mismanagement and for expenditures exceeding revenue.

The district is operating with a state-appointed superintendent and no locally elected school board. It has only until the end of the 2012-13 school year to correct its financial problems or, by law, face merger with one or more other districts.

The budget-cutting plan offered Monday by Superintendent Jerry Guess and his staff includes slicing two days from the teachers’ 192-day work year, discontinuing “severance” pay to retiring teachers and phasing out the salary credits that employees receive for completing district-taught short courses.

In all, the district’s proposal calls for cutting about $4 million in the 2012-13 school year from provisions in the teacher and support-staff contracts that don’t expire until the end of the 2014-15 school year.

The district plan envisions the budget cuts growing to $5.6 million in 2013-14, and $6.67 million in the next year, which would help the district cushion the possible loss of $11.6 million a year in special state desegregation aid.

The state has asked a federal judge to end desegregation aid to the three Pulaski County districts, an amount that totals$70 million annually.

The proposed $4 million in cuts identified by district administrators in the contracts would be paired with about $6.5 million in cuts outside the Professional Negotiations Agreements and include eliminating about 77 positions through layoffs, retirements and resignations, plus altering the school opening and dismissal times to save transportation and supervision costs. Those $6.5 million in cuts are not in dispute.

The district plan envisions ending the coming school year with $14.1 million, or 8.28 percent of annual expenditures, which is short of the district’s goal of 10 percent in reserves. But the district would attain its goal in future years as more of the salary costs for the district-taught short courses are removed.

While the district is proposing $4 million in cuts directly affecting employees and their contracts, union leaders Marty Nix and Emry Chesterfield in their documents submitted to Kimbrell proposed an alternative $5.9 million in budget cuts that would not require a change in the contract language.

Instead, the associations offered several short-term memoranda of understanding that would freeze or reduce employee costs next year but preserve the contract benefits over the long term.

The associations, for example, proposed memoranda that would suspend employee attendance incentives; reduce the amounts paid to employees for district-taught training and short courses; and reduce the amounts paid to employees for supplemental work, such as coaching or sponsoring spirit group, music, drama and journalism programs.

Employees with those supplemental contracts and are eligible for pay based on seven or more years of work would be frozen for one year at the pay level for six years of work.

The unions’ plan does not include reducing the teacher work year. The plan calls for saving $2.5 million by replacing as many as 125 retiring teachers with lesser-paid teachers. The plan also calls for cutting by 10 percent the cost of district-purchased services and cutting by 10 percent the cost of materials and supplies purchased by the district - but not those supplies affecting students.

District officials in their plan to Kimbrell anticipated that the unions would seek the 10 percent discount and argued that it wasn’t realistic savings unless it could be applied to fuel, insurance, utilities and building repairs.

“Fiscal prudence requires these expenditures to be budgeted sufficiently since there is often little control over the actual cost,” district leaders wrote.

Nix, the president of the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers, said the unions’ proposed plan would result in total expenditures of $167.6 million and year end balances of $16.9 million, which is 10.1 percent of annual expenditures and the goal of district leaders.

In the documents sent Monday to Kimbrell, the unions accused district leaders of attempting to void the Professional Negotiations Agreements in their entirety and replace them with their own set of personnel policies.

The leaders of the unions “appealed” to Kimbrell to direct Guess to resume talks with the union leaders to resolve the budget issues.

“We too, as employees, voters and taxpayers are committed to a win/win result,” Nix and Chesterfield wrote. “The Unions and the Professional Negotiations Agreements are not the enemy,” they continued.

Kimbrell has invited the leaders of both unions to meet with him at 8 a.m. today.

Arkansas, Pages 7 on 04/17/2012

Print Headline: State gets 2 plans to cut costs

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