Tuesday is D-Day for school board

GRADY COUNTY SCHOOL Finance Officer Dan Broome, second from right, ponders a question posed by Board member Drew Pyrz, second from left, following a marathon two-and-a-half hour budget worksession Tuesday night. Others shown, l-r, are Board member Joe Porter, Chairman Teresa Gee Harris, Board members Cuy Harrell III and Byron Puckett.

Some critical decisions, one way or another, will be decided next Tuesday and for Grady County school system’s employees those choices will likely have an impact on the size of their paycheck come next school term.
For nearly two-and-a-half hours Tuesday night members of the Grady County Board of Education crunched numbers and discussed proposed expense reductions as the board moves into its preparation of a spending plan for fiscal year 2009-2010, which starts July 1.
Thanks to an increase in equalization funds from the state based on the level of local taxation for schools, additional budget cuts recently announced by Gov. Sonny Perdue will be offset, according to Dr. Tommy Pharis.
The school superintendent is also banking on federal stimulus dollars awarded to the state flowing into the school system as an adjustment to state funding levels for k-12 education.
“It looks like we’re going to make it this year,” Pharis said.
However, the daunting task facing the board is a spending plan for the next fiscal year. The superintendent’s best estimates are that the system must cut approximately $950 to $1 million in expenses.
And while the state should distribute allotment sheets in the late spring, which would indicate how much state funding the system will receive, Pharis has little confidence in those figures since the state went back and made cuts twice in the current fiscal year that ends June 30.
“The question we cannot answer is if there will be additional cuts from the state during fiscal year 2010 as has happened twice in 2009,” Dr. Pharis said.
In order to budget for the known and the unknown the superintendent is suggesting the board adopt some strategies that can be incorporated into the 2010 budget process.
Whereas pay cuts for teachers and other certified personnel and furloughs for non-certified employees were at the top of the list of cuts, Pharis has now shifted that option downward after a line-by-line inspection of the budget by central office and administrative staff identified another $286,000 in cuts to expenses. (See separate story on these new proposed cuts.)
With these additional line item cuts Pharis believes the system could avoid, however unlikely, reducing supplements or ordering furloughs.
The superintendent said Tuesday night that he would like to outline in employees’ contracts what the proposed supplements would be, and only implement cuts if the board sees that the other cuts are not going to be sufficient to balance the budget. At that point the reduction would kick in.
Board attorney Thomas L. Lehman agreed that could be done as long as the board makes full disclosure in the contract and that the board’s plan is spelled out in specific language.
The pros for this proposal, according to Pharis, are that the system would not be reducing the supplements unless necessary and that the reductions may not have to be as much as projected. However, he noted that the negative side of the plan would be if, for example, “January rolls around and things are not better, we get an additional $300,000 cut so we implement the reduction schedule and hit our employees with a big cut over six months rather than spread out over 12.”
Board member Drew Pyrz suggested that the board consider putting the supplement reduction schedule into the contracts, which will be issued later this month, and if the system makes it through the year and has the money, paying the full supplement in the last two months of the year rather than over the course of the year.
“Pay it out like a bonus,” Pyrz said.
Finance Officer Dan Broome noted that he did not have a problem with that suggestion, but wants to contact the teacher retirement system to make sure the Pyrz plan would not cause problems for employees planning to retire.
“Whenever a teacher’s pay fluctuates I get phone calls from teacher retirement. I’ve gotten calls over $150,” Broome said.
The superintendent reminded board members that much of the feedback he had received was very “pointed” and was to do everything possible before cutting teacher supplements.
“No matter what you decide you will be second guessed. We will even second guess ourselves,” Pharis added.
At Tuesday night’s budget workshop three alternatives for pay cuts were placed before the board for its consideration.
Alternative #1 is the proposal that has been discussed for several weeks, which is a maximum of a $1,000 cut in local teacher supplements. This is the supplement paid to all certified personnel and ranges from $800 for first year teachers up to $1,850 maximum. So beginning teacher pay would be cut only $800 while all others would be cut $1,000. This would result in an estimated savings of $327,000.
Alternative #2, which was first revealed last week to administrators, is a maximum of an $800 supplement cut for all teachers and administrators and in addition 11-month contract employees would be furloughed one day and all 12-month contract employees would be furloughed two days. The majority of 11 and 12 month contracted employees are administrators. This plan would save the system roughly $300,000.
Alternative #3 would cut all local supplements by 50 percent and the savings would be $380,000.
Broome told board members a clear decision on the strategy for the supplement schedule modifications would need to be decided at the board’s March meeting, which is next Tuesday at 7 p.m.
“We need to make sure we communicate to the employees that we will be voting on this next week so now is the time to talk to your board member because after next week there will not be a whole lot we can do about it,” Board member Pyrz commented.
In addition to the savings from supplement reductions the superintendent is also projecting $500,000 in savings through attrition even though only four employees have indicated their desire to retire at the end of this school term.
As a possible strategy to increase the number of retirements Pharis has also suggested that the board consider a one-time only retirement bonus of $2,000 for employees with 33 years plus of experience.
“I want to be clear that I am not discounting experience, but we do know that there are some employees who are planning to retire in the next couple years. This is the year we need attrition to create some situations for possible reductions in force,” Dr. Pharis said.

Read the full story in Wednesday’s edition of The Cairo Messenger

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