It’s an unintentional alliance: Flagler County’s teacher and service employee unions on one side and the county’s tea party on the other are questioning how the local school board is balancing its budget. The unions are displeased with a plan that would cut $3.5 million, or 3 percent of the district’s budget, mostly by laying off about 40 teachers. The tea party questioned whether the district had ever done a management study of its staffing ratios, and is inviting a senior administrator at its monthly meeting tonight to explain school budgeting.
Tuesday morning, the school board administration countered with a line-item defense, addressing—and batting down—each concern while re-asserting its own approach. The district is moving ahead, with no additional meetings on the matter, to implement the cuts it agreed to previously, and negotiated, albeit one-sidedly, with the unions, who were presented with little choice but to go along.
“For me personally at this point we need to move forward as we have been,” Sue Dickinson, who chairs the school board, said, “and in the event we end up with additional financial crises, these are items that we can certainly look at as options.”
Later in the day Superintendent Janet Valentine clarified that the board’s decision does not mean the administration won’t continue negotiating and working through other possibilities.
“They board did not feel that the school board needs to meet on these,” Valentine clarified. “These will be management decisions, and negotiations will continue regarding the items that have been set forth, for instance the reduced working days for employees. We did find additional reductions in here based on those suggestions that we’re moving forward with—that was a reduction in administrators, textbook reductions, and the textbook reductions are because we’re purchasing online textbooks. We’re going to pursue the advertising on buses, sports fields, etc., so we did take suggestions from here.”
Valentine added: “Indeed we are continuing to negotiate on the things that will impact salary conditions and working conditions for our employees.”
In a brief presentation to the board, Mike Judd, the director of facilities, outlined in broad strokes how district staffing is either in line or below recommended staffing formulas. He said he’d tracked down a management study the district conducted in 2006 with Educational Management Consulting Services. Valentine followed by taking on 41 suggestions put forward either by the Flagler County Education Association—the teachers’ union—or by school employees, who could, over the past two months, send in their suggestions anonymously through the district’s web site.
Among the suggestions: by-passing the scheduled adoption of new science textbooks this year, closing Old Kings Elementary, elimination the district’s strings orchestra program, eliminating after-school busing, cutting one counselor out of each school and reducing the number of days the district’s two athletic directors work each year, eliminating some administrators, moving Pathways, the alternative school, and Phoenix Academy, the district’s specialized school, cutting back vacation and sick days, eliminating all sports programs, going to a four-day school week, and so on.
Item by item, Valentine explained, from the district’s perspective, what was and what wasn’t feasible at this point. Regarding science textbook adoptions, for example, she said an early estimate by the teachers union that delaying adoption would save $4 million was inaccurate. (The union had put forth that number but retracted it weeks ago.) The year’s entire cost of textbook adoptions, Valentine said, would be $162,000, though–as noted above–the suggestion of saving money on textbooks was endorsed by buying more electronic books, a saving hard-copy books.
Enforcing the staffing formula through “managed attrition” while respecting class-size requirements will save $2.1 million, Valentine said—that’s the $2.1 million the district will save by eliminating 40 teachers.
The Legislature this spring significantly relaxed class-size ratio requirements, which should translate into additional savings for school districts. The presumably cost-saving consequences of that development were not discussed Tuesday.
Among other savings that will be realized next year: ensuring that Good Friday is part of spring break will save the district the cost of 138 substitute teachers, a cost it had to carry this year. Regarding the strings program—the Flagler Youth Orchestra, a county-wide after-school program hosted by Indian Trails Middle School—Valentine said its cost to the district, $54,000 for the year, was justified by the 300-some students enrolled in the program. (More than 300 enrolled at the beginning of the year. The numbers fell to about 250 by year’s end.) “It’s extremely cost-effective per student,” Valentine said, noting that the program also enables high school students to earn credit, which gives them more alternatives in light of electives being reduced within the school day. (Toward the end of the meeting, School Board member Andy Dance said programs like the youth orchestra need community support to survive, and pointed to the program’s drive for sponsors of sheet music as an example.)
The four-day school week? “There’s a huge impact on families here,” Valentine said. She is interested in looking at other school districts that would be attempting it before considering it locally.
The board, the administration and the unions have been dealing with budget cuts since March, though by late April the district’s approach was essentially set. Recommendations from the unions or from employees did not significantly change those proposals, which are already being implemented as schools prepare their schedules for next year and the district prepares its overall budget. But some proposals from the unions and the web-based suggestion box were adopted.
When Dickinson asked if the board was interested in scheduling yet another workshop on the proposals Valentine had just discussed, only board member John Fischer said such a meeting might be necessary for “fine-tuning” the numbers. But no other board member was interested.
The lights at the board chambers at the Government Services Building were not at full blast for the board’s Tuesday morning meeting: a mostly symbolic nod to energy savings, which the district projects will net $300,000 district-wide next year.