With great reluctance, the Harlan County Board of Education has adopted a budget and staffing plan for next year that cuts approximately $1.5 million in operational costs. That is equal to about four percent of the current budget for the local system.
The board directed the superintendent to reduce just over $500,000 of that amount from the central office and district-wide operations.
Board Chairman Gary Farmer said an additional $200,000 would need to be directed from central office expense in the following school year, 2013-14, with those savings to be used for the district’s transportation needs.
During a well-attended special meeting Thursday, board members struggled with funding shortfalls that have made their oversight choices difficult. Teachers, principals, other staff and family members were on hand to witness the board’s actions.
As presented, the approved staffing plan maintains the current student-teacher ratios, however it is still likely several teaching positions could be affected because of the district’s ongoing drop in enrollment. The actual number of lost jobs won’t be known until retirements, staff transfers and other acts of attrition take place over the summer break.
The new staffing plan will require the district to cut back on other services such as guidance counselors and media/library staff.
To underscore the difficulty of their decision, the board members held a 102-minute closed-door executive session to discuss the issues one last time prior to their public votes.
After acknowledging the members of the audience, Superintendent Tim Saylor addressed their concerns while everyone awaited the return of the board.
“The main reason we are here tonight is the budget issue,” he said. “These are very difficult times in this school system.”
The county has lost $400,000 in SEEK (the main source of state funding) this year directly attributable to the loss of student population, Saylor said. While the state maintains the funding of SEEK according to the same formula and can claim they haven’t cut school funding, he noted, they now require districts to cover the cost of other things, such as textbooks, which the state once covered with separate appropriations.
Harlan County Schools also “lost” $1 million in federal money used last year, he said, because those funds — usually referred to as “stimulus dollars” — were available only for the short-term and have expired. Also, because the school system must maintain a contingency fund equal to two percent of their operating budget, they cannot use every dollar in the system the way they might prefer, Saylor added.
In the past, when the school system did not operate strictly according to those state regulations, board members were removed and the state sent a team in to make the decisions. Everyone wants to avoid that scenario from happening again, Farmer said after the meeting.
“I know you haven’t had a raise in the district in many, many years,” Saylor told the crowd. “(The funding situation) bothers me and it bothers the board. I’m going to have to make a lot of difficult choices here. We’re going to do it the best we can do.”
Lamenting the loss of many “young, good teachers in this school system,” Saylor said that had been an ongoing issue as the district had been experiencing a layoff of 8-15 teachers each year for quite some time.
“But we’ll make the decisions we have to make and we’ll get on with it,” he added. “We’ll get by — we’ll get by.”
Board member Brenda Henson voted against the staffing plan, and was joined by Myra Mosley in opposing the approved budget plan, which includes an increase of the mileage reimbursement cost for extra-curricular transportation to $2.39. Though that will greatly inflate the cost of class field trips and athletic trips, Farmer noted the change was again one that had been recommended by the state for several years and the local board had delayed it as long as they could.
The bad financial news didn’t end there. It was reported to the board that federal funding for Title I, Title II and IDEA programs were “at-risk” because the U.S. Senate had not passed a budget in over two years. The loss of those funds — totaling more than $381,000 — would not be evident until January. The board remained focused on the immediate issue of getting a working budget in place for the 2012-13 school year and would address that issue when it became a problem.
“This is the hardest decision I’ve made since I’ve been on the board,” Henson said in explaining her vote. “I just feel that certain jobs were put ahead of students.”
Mosley said, in certain cases, she agreed.
“I don’t like it,” Farmer said. “It still had to be done. As you can see, we didn’t agree.”
After the meeting, Farmer noted how the majority of the cuts were inevitable and could have been planned for if the board had chosen to use the federal “stimulus dollars” differently. In 2010 when those funds were received, Farmer said during a board meeting “if we’re not careful we’ll be right here in two years having to cut a million dollars out of our budget, and that’s exactly what we had to sit here and do.”