I am one member of a five person board. The opinions I express on this forum are mine only, and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Escambia County Staff, Administrators, Employees, or anyone else associated with Escambia County Florida. I am interested in establishing this blog as a means of additional transparency to the public, outreach to the community, and information dissemination to all who choose to look. Feedback is welcome, but because public participation is equally encouraged, appropriate language and decorum is mandatory.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Escambia County Schools Facing Tough Budget Decisions

Today I attended a financial strategy session with top ECSD officials. The outlook for our upcoming budget year is not good. In fact it is downright bleak. There is a very high likelihood that our district will need to identify savings opportunities and/or budget cuts that will total upwards of 11-14 million dollars---and 11-14 million dollars may not even be enough to cover the estimated budget shortfall. It could become even worse.

With this being the backdrop of this budget cutting meeting, the leadership of the district presented me with a large list of potential cuts that could be implemented to arrive at the initial target savings amount of eleven million dollars. This list was divided into two parts. Part one contained proposals that were described as the achievable but “difficult” cuts. These cuts included such measures as having High School Teachers teach 6 of 7 periods as opposed to their current 5 of 7 periods. This measure would potentially result in a savings of several million dollars. Some other examples of part one, “difficult” savings opportunities included having administrators across the board take a 1% salary decrease, (saving approximately$100,000.00) Elimination of 10 Band, PE, and/or other Teachers, (saving approximately $440,000.00) and closure of 2 elementary schools (saving approximately $900,000.00). The part one “difficult” list consisted of more than a dozen items and added up to approximately 7 million dollars.

The part two list was next….It was characterized as the “excruciatingly, unbearably and practically impossible” list of cuts. I’ll point out here that this list is a fluid document, is being revised even as I type, and will most likely continue to be modified until the special School Board workshop on Monday April 21st. I also believe this list will be made available to the public very soon. With this being said, the “part two” list items would significantly and directly impact students; Sports would be cut, fine arts, music and band programs would be cut, additional fine arts instructors would be cut, ESE instructors would be cut and young students would be required to walk further to their bus stops or schools (up to 2 miles, in some cases). The part two list consisted of roughly thirty items and the grand total estimated savings for “parts one and two” was roughly 11 million dollars. Our outlook is acutely precarious because even if all of the part one and part two “list” cuts were implemented, our district may still be short of meeting the projected funding deficit. This is a very disconcerting realization, and will necessitate that drastic measures be contemplated at the School Board’s upcoming meeting on April 21.

The problem I have with the list of potential cuts that I was shown today is that these proposed cuts would hit our students the hardest. Because every district employee is part of an organization that is dedicated to addressing the educational needs of the students, why, then, are the students the ones who are being cut? Of course I am disappointed that extremely difficult decisions will now need to be made to balance our district’s budget. I just do not want to balance the budget on the backs of our students. Of course I am disappointed that the state legislature was not able to “hold education harmless”. Even though the state did not keep it's promise, we are still in the business of children, so I’m of the opinion that we ought to find a way to do what we can to “hold the students of Escambia County harmless”. After all, we are all here for the students and not vice-versa. So, at the conclusion of today’s meeting and after we went through the list of extremely difficult items on the chopping block, I gave the administration my two cents worth. In a nutshell, I put forth my own idea about how to solve the current budget crisis. I may be na├»ve, but I feel that there is potentially another way to address this budget issue. I have a simplistic solution that would not directly impact students and that would not require personnel lay-offs. It is a basic concept actually, one that is utilized in private businesses and corporations when financial difficulties arise. It is a three choice option-- A, B, or C. While none of these options are in any way palatable, difficult times require difficult decisions. It’s a rough first run through, that no doubt would need to be massaged into a workable model, but at least it is a start. My personal favorite choices are plan “A”, “B”, or a compromise between the two. Based upon the reception my idea garnered at the administrative staff meeting, though, I think plan C is the likely odds on favorite…

Plan A: All ECSD employees making a salary in an amount above what is determined to be a "living wage" would take a temporary pay cut in the amount equal to what would be necessary to, as a group, cover the projected budget shortfall. Initial estimate, 5-7% per employee. This plan puts kids first and truly holds our students harmless.

Plan B: All employees making a salary in an amount above what is determined to be a "living wage" would take a temporary pay cut in the amount equal to, as a group, what would cover 50% of the projected budget shortfall. Initial estimate 2.5-3% per employee. Remaining 50% covered by reserves, medical reserves, or by any means necessary that would not result in layoff to staff or direct impact to students in the classrooms.

Plan C: Act upon administration recommendations and make all cuts necessary (to potentially include ones previously mentioned above) in order to balance the budget, effectively placing the entire budget hit on the backs of the students. Plan C will essentially hold the teacher’s union employees harmless, while everyone else in the district, including retirees, administrators, and students, absorb drastic program cuts. I would like to think that a more equitible solution than plan "C" could be worked out among the stakeholders.

I would like to work together with the Teacher’s Union in this instance to find a compromise that does not place nearly this entire burden of the budget cuts on the students. I would simply request that the Teacher’s Union and it's membership realistically look at these options, A, B, and C. I would like to ask of our local NEA affiliate, the EEA, the following rhetorical question “Would you be willing to poll your membership to ask if pay cuts, given this dire economic situation, would be acceptable for a limited period of time to get through this budget crisis” Although I have already been told this idea would “never fly” I subscribe to the idea that you never get the answer to the question if you don’t ask the question. I am an optimist, and I want to believe that everyone involved in this situation will do whatever it takes to lessen the impact to our district’s students, to include realistically looking at plans A and B above before settling on C. Plans A and B above only work if every employee steps up and takes a hit. The proposals above are not popular, and many will say they are not feasible, but I beg to differ. When we face financial difficulties, we must never say never. We should be creative and look at all possible solutions, especially the solutions which will be the least difficult on the ones we are here to serve, the students. Actions speak louder than words, especially now that we are officially in a financial pinch. The last thing that I, or anyone else I know, wants to ever do is take money out of workers’ pockets. I want to be crystal clear on that. However, we are in the position we are in and we need a creative way to deal with this predicament. If all of the employees of this district (Administrators, Board Members, Instructors, and Support) truly feel that the children should come first, and not last, then we need to look at whatever it takes to shield them from this financial blow. When we talk budget cutting, let’s do the right thing and find a way to hold the STUDENTS of Escambia County Schools harmless.

No comments: