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Closing Schools a Possibility With or Without Referendum as District Closes Budget Gap

| May 9, 2013

Sacks of Flagler-grown potatoes were distributed to school board members Thursday morning before their special meeting on school cuts. The sacks are to encourage board  members to take part in Bunnell's Potato Festival's cook-off this weekend. The potatoes were the morning's only bright spot in an otherwise laboring meeting. (c FlaglerLive)

Sacks of Flagler-grown potatoes were distributed to school board members Thursday morning before their special meeting on school cuts. The sacks are to encourage board members to take part in Bunnell’s Potato Festival’s cook-off this weekend. The potatoes were the morning’s only bright spot in an otherwise laboring meeting. (c FlaglerLive)

On Tuesday, the Flagler County School Board ended its day-long meeting on how to close a $1.8 million budget gap still $1 million short. Board members came up with two options that actually closed the entire gap. But neither option got more than two votes from the board, leaving full agreement on only about $750,000 in cuts. (See the details here.)

The board reconvened this morning for an emergency meeting to close that million-dollar gap in a way that would get everyone’s support, though School Superintendent Janet Valentine had done most of the work for the board.

Everest, the district’s alternative school, would close, saving $562,000. And the district’s dozen schools and school “sites” would be responsible for coming up with an additional $317,000 in savings, a less insurmountable task than it appears. Flagler Palm Coast High School, for example, has already accounted for more than a third of that when the school agreed on Wednesday to delay for a year a $120,000 expense for band uniforms. Many schools will cut back their combined $250,000 annual out-of-county travel budget. Valentine had met with all school administrations on Wednesday to pare down their budgets, school by school.

The closing of Everest alternative school would be a severe blow to the district—and the county—well beyond the school’s small campus, behind Flagler Palm Coast High School, and the 50-odd students it serves at any given time. The school, in operation 15 years, is a pressure valve for many students who, for one reason or another, are not able to function in a regular school environment. The school’s existence reduces the number of expulsions and ensures that students who are expelled from their regular school continue to attend school and get more focused attention. It also keeps those students from ending up in the streets, making Everest a adjunct to the county’s security concerns.

After Valentine laid out the proposed cuts, that left $100,000 to find. Board Chairman Andy Dance said that amount could be taken from reserves, at least for now, knowing that the numbers are fluid anyway, and that all planned cuts may not become necessary. Along the way, nine media aides survived, so did transportation for elementary students who live less than two miles from their school, so did all “wheel” classes in elementary schools, such as music, art and science.

But service learning programs at Princess Place Preserve and Palm Coast’s Linear Park were all but eliminated, six para-professional positions were cut, travel was scaled back, including for some Problem Solvers’ competitions, budgeting for the Flagler Youth Orchestra was reduced, but the program survives, library books won’t be bought next year, two administrative position s were eliminated, so was a lobbyist’s contract. There were other cuts and savings that have more to do with reorganizing services than affecting programs or individuals (such as a $34,000 saving from contracting with Bunnell for waste pick up).

All those cuts, including the closing of Everest alternative school, will be made unnecessary if voters approve a referendum on June 7, asking for a property tax supplement that equates to an additional $28 a year on the average Flagler County house with a homestead exemption.

But keep in mind: those cuts were achieved with the board taking yet another serious chunk of money ($1.7 million) from its reserves. The budgeting discussion began with that assumption, which, in effect, masked the true deficit: it wasn’t a $1.8 million deficit, but a $3.5 million deficit, made to look smaller by the dip in reserves. Those dips are unsustainable: the district’s reserves will be down to 5 percent of its budget next year, too low to be dipped into again for operational expenses. Andy Dance, the board chairman, stresses that absent success on the referendum, the deficit next year may be far more severe than this year’s, and more difficult to close.

Thursday’s meeting was far shorter: it was over by 9:45 a.m., less than two hours in. But it was not short on drama and revelations that will likely shake the school district, its 12,500 students and their parents well beyond today’s decisions, and whether or not the referendum passes.

Valentine and the board agreed that closing schools may very well be inevitable—not this coming school year, but the next. In the school year ending in June, the district lost 285 students overall. That is the steepest decline in the district’s history: in the past, it was never so large as to have such a large proportion of its students vanish. And as Flagler County grew, its school population only grew: that had been the case, uninterruptedly, for at least a generation. The state is projecting that the county will gain students next year. The district is budgeting on another loss of 285 students, which is one reason why it is facing a budget gap.

If, in fact, the district loses that many students again, closing a school, if not two, may be inevitable, though Valentine said that, again, the passing of the referendum may delay that decision.

On Tuesday, the board considered closing a school as party of its immediate cost savings. But it quickly became apparent that planning in May for a school closure by August was logistically next-to-impossible. And board member Colleen Conklin was insistent that if, in fact, closing a school becomes a real possibility because of declining enrollment, the notion should not be made conditional on the referendum:

“I am not confident and comfortable in recommending that we close a school based on the referendum because we may have to close it anyway,” Conklin said, “and I don’t want to put it out to the voters that if you pass this referendum we won’t close a school, because that most likely will not be the case.” The board agreed, with caveats.

Early in today’s discussion, Valentine served up two options describing what a school closure would mean. The numbers were startling. Under one option, the district would close Wadsworth Elementary and Indian Trails Middle School. Wadsworth’s students would be dispersed among four remaining elementary schools. Buddy Taylor Middle would take over the entire middle building currently shared by Wadsworth and Buddy Taylor, and Indian Trails’s students would move in there. The savings: $3.2 million.

The district has enough empty seats now to make that happen.

A second option would be to close Old Kings Elementary, and disperse those students among four remaining elementary schools. That closure would yield a saving of $1.5 million.

When those numbers were submitted, board member Sue Dickinson was shocked—not by the numbers, but by the fact that the district is still operating all its schools, when it could actually consolidate and save.

“So we’re going to be spending an additional $3.1 million this year when we could have been planning for this and have it happen this year,” Dickinson said. “We are not using taxpayers dollars appropriately when we are operating two school buildings half empty.” Board members and the superintendent didn’t disagree, but any school closure would need broader planning—and more certainty about the enrollment figures, which won’t be clear, so far as next year’s trend is concerned, until Labor Day.

Dickinson had another issue she turned into a line in her sand, which she didn’t want the board to cross: the lay-off of six non-instructional, or para-professional, employees, each of whom makes $18,000, or less than the living wage required to make it in Flagler County. When Dance said that the last $100,000 in the budget gap could be bridged with reserves, Dickinson pounced: if that’s the case, then a similar sum could be—should be—found to ensure that those six employees are not laid off. Dickinson said, correctly, that the six would be the only employees who’d have to be looked in the face and told they have no job next year. The 15 teaching positions being eliminated are occurring thanks to retirements and voluntary resignations.

Conklin and Dickinson then battled over the six, with Conklin referring to a recent report that showed the district being 20 positions over its necessary level of para-professionals, and Dickinson refuting the claim by saying that the six were vital to current operations. At that point, a district administrator was summoned to the dais to tell the board that while the district can always use more hands, all of the 20 were not, in fact, vital, and none of the planned cuts would affect such operations as disabled or autistic children in classrooms that Dickinson had referred to. The debate got angry,

“I hope you have a nice mother’s day, knowing they won’t have a job next year,” Dickinson told Conklin.

“Not helpful,” Conklin said.

Dance, the board chairman, had to intervene, ending the discussion once it was clear that the board’s consensus—and Valentine’s recommendation—was for the lay-offs. For now, anyway: the decision was necessary because if those employees are to be laid off, today was the deadline for them to be officially informed of the fact.

The discussion is not over. Thanks in part to Dickinson’s insistence, but also because other board members want to continue analyzing the budget, the board set yet another budget workshop for next Tuesday, May 14, at 1 p.m. Valentine’s task: to be ready to discuss with the board the district’s organization, department by department, with an eye to how departments and employees are used, and another eye to how that could be changed, with cuts in mind. Dickinson was especially interested in how “teachers on assignment” are used: those are classroom teachers who’ve been pulled from the classroom to be in charge of particular programs, such as drop-out prevention or college and carer readiness, jobs that could, theoretically, be reduced. At least that was Dickinson’s argument when she was battling to save the para-professional jobs.

Another surprise in today’s meeting: Conklin said that in light of the continuing enrollment decline, the district will have to revisit its resistance to eliminating construction impact fees, the one-time tax levied on new homes to defray the cost of new school buildings. Conklin last year was the swing vote against ending those impact fees, a proposal the local real estate and home-building businesses are eager to see realized. Her switch would be an opening to make that happen.

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31 Responses for “Closing Schools a Possibility With or Without Referendum as District Closes Budget Gap”

  1. Joe Joe says:

    If people weren’t so cheap in the county and would just vote yes for this measly tax increase none of this would be an issue or a problem…

    • Realty Check says:

      @ Joe Joe

      It has nothing to do with cheap, it is a school board that cannot control costs, and they want the easy road out by just asking and getting more money. This is nothing more than a scare tactic by a group of under preforming politicians who refuse to make the cuts in the areas needed. They are all afraid of committing political suicide and losing their 30 K a year positions and pensions.

  2. Ogreagain says:

    “I am not confident and comfortable in recommending that we close a school based on the referendum because we may have to close it anyway,” Conklin said, “and I don’t want to put it out to the voters that if you pass this referendum we won;t close a school, because that most likely will not be the case.”

    Thank you for being honest, are voters are better informed now

  3. Upset with education says:

    I realize that the school board has our children’s best interests in mind, but do the children really NEED all the electronics that they have available in the classrooms? Do our elementary children need to know how to use an I pad? Do they need these leap pads in the classrooms so they can play learning games on? All of these classrooms are catering to our children and giving them the cushy/relaxed way of learning. The only classroom that had toys in it was the Kindergarten class when I was in school, once you went to 1st grade it was about learning. Yes, we had free time, but we were in school to learn. We had our physical education at least 3 times a week, along with art, music and occasionally the computer lab. We were expected to learn what was being taught to us without electronical devices. The school board could definitely find other ways to cut budget costs without having to close a school or let teachers/para professionals go.

    Also, there are entirely too many administrators at the elementary level. Start from the top and then work your way down. Why get rid of 2 or 3 teachers when you can eliminate an administrative position, restructure, there are plenty of people who move out of area, retire etc. and keep the important people who are integral to our children’s education.

    • Tech advocate says:

      Uhm, yes they do need current technology. Are you serious? Besides, the 1/2 penny sales tax pays for ALL things technology related. iPad and technology integration has nothing to do with this referendum or on how we can come up with $1.7million.

      You need to really see what these students are doing with these iPads in the paperless classrooms. There is no game playing on them, I assure you.

    • disgusted with this county says:

      I think that teaching kids to use electronics is important…this world is run with electronics and the younger they are taught, the easier it is to learn..these are skills that they will need to succeed later in life. Electronics aren’t going away..there are new things hitting the market everyday and if the students of today aren’t learning to use them, they will be left behind in the future.

  4. PCer says:

    Why are they closing Everest and not Phoenix? Does Phoenix get some sort of grant or other funding from the state or Feds?

    • Who knows says:

      The teachers there are all on the boards side, there has been tons of time that school has mentioned for closure but everytime it still ends up around. And no there is no grant that funds that school.

  5. Michelle says:

    Thank you for keeping the para pros!

    As a substitute teacher, I have subbed in many ESE classrooms. The para pros are NEEDED. They are the ones who complete the physical care on the students. They help them use the rest room, clean up any physical messes they have, and help with their educational work. Occasionally, a student will become physical, and the paras will have to deal with scratches and/or punches from that student. They do not get paid nearly enough for the work they do. They are an incredible asset to these students education.

    Thank you for keeping them.

  6. disgusted with this county says:

    This is a cover story on the PC Observer also…along with a story about buying and renovating the old hospital for the new sheriff’s office at a cost of almost $7 million and expanding the jail at a cost of $15 million….why the hell are we investing more in criminals than in education???? Why is it that education is ALWAYS the first thing to be cut??? I think some people need to pull their heads out of their asses and make some adjustments…instead of spending 15 mill on the jail…pitch some tents and let the criminals rough it.

  7. Ted says:

    They may have a hard time getting this referendum passed after they pretty much admitted they are spending 3+ million more they need to in keeping some of the schools open.

  8. Joanne says:

    close the school this year and save 3 million. Be smart and do it now

    • Nancy N. says:

      It’s way too late in the year to try to do school closures now for next year…did you see the chaos that ensued about five years ago when they tried to enact something as simple as a uniform policy for the following year this time of year? No way could they pull off closing a school, figuring out what kids and staff to send where, and getting people informed of the changes. It’s way too complex a process to complete in less than 3 months.

  9. Michelle says:

    From what I can see, why should those few select students and teachers use such a large part of the budget when they can easily fo back to their designated schools and be taught like the reast of our children. You don’t hear Conklin talk about closing that since it is “her baby”. Maybe people should be chatting it up about that waste of money!!! And not the middle school…I’m sure they’ll get a great education teaching all those grades together. GET RID OF PHOENIX…that will save money and space!!!!!

  10. confidential says:

    If we have 280 less kids registered in our schools why don’t they terminate at least 4 administrators positions at about 100 grand each and instead keep the teachers and aids that is what the kids really need? Is the school board just blinded by the administration? Can the board members analize one by one the real use of those soo many 6 figures pays to administrators?
    Just Belle Terre Elementary has 2 assistant principals at over 70,000 each. What is that, the assistant of the assistant of the principal? So does the realwork then?

    • IMO says:

      Declining enrollment?

      Are you following the Immigration Reform legislation being debated in Congress.

      Once the Immigration Reform is passed school enrollment will go up in almost every state in the nation.

      Who do you think educated the children of the European immigrants? European immigration into the United States was the main reason the modern public school system was established. It was either create a public school system or leave the immigrant children to live on the streets and enter into a life of crime.

      Those who never studied American history are destined to make the same mistakes of the past.

      ” Educating the Immigrant Child: 1892-1914

      In 1909, the U.S. Immigration Commission reported that almost 60 percent of students in large cities were children of immigrants. This percentage was even higher (over 70 percent) in New York City, the “golden door” to America for most European immigrants.

      Between 1880 and 1920, a period which saw the third great wave of immigration to the United States,
      more than 23 million immigrants became US permanent residents, mostly from European countries.

      Between 1880 and the beginning of World War I in 1914, New York schools experienced a 60 percent jump in enrollment. The majority of these new students were Russian Jews and Italians, either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants. Moreover, the cultural backgrounds and languages of these “new” immigrants were quite different from those of the English, Germans, and Irish who had dominated immigration to America before 1900.

      Overcrowding plagued New York schools at this time. Many schools held double sessions. A single classroom with one teacher often held 60 and occasionally up to 150 children. In the primary grades, pupils frequently sat three to a seat. Many immigrant children had only three hours of instruction a day. During some years, as many as 30,000 new students, mostly immigrants, were simply turned away at overcrowded New York schools.

      In 1898, William H. Maxwell was appointed superintendent of the newly consolidated New York City school system. An Irish immigrant himself, Maxwell was a visionary advocate of improving education for the immigrant children then flooding into New York’s schools. Maxwell first fought and defeated the old corrupt system that permitted political bosses to hire teachers. He then sought better-trained, professional teachers and selected them based on their qualifications.

      Before Maxwell became superintendent, all immigrant children who entered school speaking no English were automatically placed in the first grade regardless of age. Maxwell established a special program to teach English to newly arrived immigrant children as soon as they enrolled in school. Called “steamer classes,” named after immigrant passenger ships, the program featured English-only instructions with teachers using objects and gestures to teach the language. Those children who could already read and write in their own native language seemed to learn English the fastest.”

      Well guess what we are about to do it once again.

      “Today, the United States is in the midst of another wave of mass immigration, the fourth great wave of immigration to the United States, this time characterized
      by newcomers from Latin America (Mexico in particular), Asia, and the Caribbean…The United States has a successful track record of integration in spite of having no integration policy
      (refugee programs being the exception). The laissez faire approach to integration has worked because the United States traditionally has had a strong system of public education and because economic expansion has allowed immigrants and their descendants to pursue their economic aspirations, which, in turn, facilitates integration along multiple dimensions. If the laissez faire method continues to be the preferred approach, then the state of public education in areas of considerable immigrant settlement and the stagnating economy are significant areas of concern”

      Declining enrollment? As they say “Reading is fundamental” and that is why google was invented. So you can look things up and formulate a theory based on FACTS.

  11. Sue Dickinson says:

    For the record my comment of “Happy Mother’s Day was by no means directed at Mrs Conklin. It was in sympathy to the 6 para pro’s that will be spending Mother’s Day having been told that they do not have a job for next school year.

    • Realty Check says:

      @ Sue

      Why terminate them, try cutting the fat at the top, start with the assistant superintendent, this is a wasteful position in a district this small, it was created for him and now it needs to go. The salary for this position would pay for 5 Para’s, and that is economically sound with only one lost job. You need to make the hard decisions and eliminate the administrators (your supporters) the further from the classroom someone is, the easier to eliminate the position. You and the rest of the board need to remember, eliminate or be eliminated by the voters, this poor performance by the board cannot be tolerated by the citizens of Flagler County.

  12. Stevie says:

    “.why the hell are we investing more in criminals than in education????”

    because criminals have rights that students don’t have. Where do you think most of those crimals came from in the first place? Public schools.

  13. Rose says:

    Why can’t the board trim their hefty salaries.

  14. mellissa says:

    An extra $25 per year is a very small price to pay for our children, you won’t even notice really. And they deserve it

  15. Just Me says:

    Let The Voter Vote Their Conscious.

  16. kmedley says:

    Sounds like good ole’ fashion scare tactics to me. The School Board is banking on the “low information voter” to carry this referendum; so, a few well placed scares, school closings, will garner the votes. VOTE NO!

  17. Greg says:

    Vote YES!!! Everest should be the last school to close down! If everest is gone most kids will be automatically expelled with no alternative, leaving them on the streets with no education. At least give them a chance to go somewhere in life we shouldn’t just leave 50+ kids with no high school education just because we dont want to pay $25 more a year. What we should be doing is closing down phoenix but that’s a different story.

  18. Bob Z. says:

    Most private and public entities do their best to spend money wisely, and they can never please everyone. Most people just see numbers and do not know anything more: they don’t know what people do for their salaries, how much things cost, factors such as rules and regulations, etc. Nevertheless, in this case the extra money that will be generated will benefit citizens of our county (directly or indirectly) therefore I will be voting “YES”.

  19. IMO says:

    I/M/O the homeowners of Palm coast need to think long and hard as to the upcoming vote on June 7th that will extend the 1/2 penny per thousand of assessed valuation and add a new 1/2 penny tax per thousand of assessed valuation to County school taxes.

    First and foremost property values in Palm coast have stabilized and Palm coast homes are projected to increase in value next year between 3.7% and 4%.

    Now those paying attention to the questions be asked by families thinking of relocating to Palm Coast at are observing the top question usually asked is “How are the schools?” I j have yet to see one person answer this question with a negative response. The replies are always the schools are excellent and they are safe. Palm coast residents replies to perspective families looking to re-locate to Palm Coast emphasize that Palm Coast schools have a “Resource Officer” (Police Officer assigned to the schools.

    Then of course are those who are emphasize in their replies that the High Schools have an “A” rating and are classified as being in the top 5% of Florida High Schools and the top 10% of the nation’s high schools.

    Just this past week at the Matanzas High School Awards night two graduating Seniors were awarded $180,000 scholarships to Emory University to enter that University’s Aerospace, Aeronautical & Astronautical Engineering Program. What a testament to the Teachers, administrators, district and school board. Those of course were the largest scholarships awarded to graduating seniors in the Flagler District. There were many other scholarships awarded by universities to other students.

    So the students are fulfilling their responsibilities. The Teachers, administrators, school district administrators and school board members are fulfilling their responsibilities even as the have been operating under large budget cuts the last few years.

    So we the homeowners of Palm Coast face a very important decision on June 7th. Vote down the 1/2 mil tax increase and see excellent Teachers lose their jobs, Advanced Placement courses get cut and the possible removal of the Resource Officers from our schools or we can see the larger picture. Vote Yes on the 1/2 mil tax increase per thousand dollars assessed valuation and see 20 additional Teachers be hired, more and improved Advanced Placement courses and maintain the Resource Officer at every school in Palm Coast. to provide a safe and drug free environment in our schools.

    The estimated projected tax increase on the average Palm Cost home will be $24.00 per year if the vote is Yes. So the average Palm Coast homeowner The .5 mill equates to an additional cost of $23.99
    23.99 per year to taxpayers per year to taxpayers [based on a home valued at
    $123,000 with a homestead exemption.
    An increase of 50 cents per $1,000 of taxable value for school funding for the next 4 years.
    Yet the real estate market is projecting that homeowners equity (home value) could rise 3.7% next year. That equates to $5,500 dollars. Now if anyone can tell me where a $23.99 investment could result in a $5,500 return on that investment please post it here.

    Great schools mean great communities which mean strong home values. “That is the big picture; and it doesn’t take an areonautical engineer to see that.”

    Also know what a “No” Vote will result in:

    The loss of at least 3.7 million dollars in federal funding to our schools.
    Reduced state aid to our schools.

    That is a recipe for a disaster.

    JUNE 7, 2013
    Shall the Flagler County School Board levy a .5 mill for operational
    needs of the District, including preserving academic programs,
    restoring 45 minutes to the middle and high schools, maintaining
    the arts, and implementing security measures to ensure a safe
    school environment for a period of four fiscal years beginning July
    1, 2013 and ending June 30, 2017, with annual reporting of these
    funds to the citizens of Flagler County?

    Vote Early
    Early voting for this Special Election will be held according to
    the following schedule. Any registered and eligible voter in the
    county may vote early.


    However to maintain an attractive business climate a state must provide “Excellent Schools” to provide perspective employers with an educated workforce. Palm Coast already has those schools. For $24.00 a year we can make them even more attractive.


    • Realty Check says:

      @ IMO, You must be in real-estate, the fact is the FCSB cannot or will not control costs, and while we are at it Florida as a whole ranks 46 out of 50 so you may want to rethink your stance on our great schools. It takes a lot more to attract industry besides wallmart to a community, it takes the community as a whole. We need great schools, ammenities such as aquatic centers, community centers and land where the people will let you build a factory and not complain abouty the traffic, that has never happened here. This tax in no way shape or form will help anyone other than the school district to get what they need and never worry about cutting the fat in their budget.

  20. Joe B says:

    Exactly and the State should ban them just like Internet Cafes. It’s just like a gamble and can’t beat the house.

  21. DP says:

    Once again it goes to show how a Governmental body can mismanage the Tax payer’s money, and now claim they may have to consider closing a school or two. That’s even with the increase or the scare tactic of the much needed .50 mill raise. I ask why do you people continue to vote these types of people into office???? I’m not against any of the children in our system, I’m against the continued misguidance, misspending, and continued mistruths or misleading facts that come out of their mouths. It’s time the elected body listens to their constitutes, No new taxes, tighten your belts like we the tax payers have had to do. Lack of staff, or kids, means less top heavy administrators, cut them or you get cut @ election time. “VOTE NO June 7th”

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