May 07, 2009
|Hebert Walks Out On School Budget Meeting|
The Guilford County Board of Education did a line-item review of its budget on Wednesday, April 29 – a review that one school board member boycotted because he said he hadn't gotten enough information from the school administration to properly make budget decisions.
School board member Garth Hebert walked out of the budget session 15 minutes into it, saying he had gotten only printed copies of the budget, rather than the electronic versions he had requested, and not gotten totals for the amount of money remaining from the school system's 2008-2009 budget.
Hebert sent email to other school board members the same day explaining his decision to leave.
"It is with regret I am withdrawing from the line by line meeting," Hebert wrote. "Traditionally, Board was provided this information electronically and I requested staff provide in a format we had utilized historically. Yes, I realize our chart of accounts has changed but our materials are prepared from a spreadsheet already existing. As staff/leadership has decided to withhold such I must conclude they desire to hide or obscure information."
In an email response, the schools chief financial officer, Sharon Ozment, said she had simply forgotten to email a copy of the spreadsheets in question after working until 2:30 a.m. the night before to compile them. Ozment wrote Hebert that the total of the remaining money would not be available until the school system closed its books for April.
Hebert said later that he didn't find the line-item review useful without the information. "We don't know if we're over or under as a school board," he said. "We just know how much we budgeted last year. It's a good way to hide information, which has been happening a lot lately."
Ozment said she sent the electronic spreadsheets to Hebert the day of the budget session.
"It was an oversight," she said. "It was unfortunate, but it was certainly not an attempt to prevent the public or board members from having any information."
This budget season, school employees have, in rapid succession, been hit by layoffs, a succession of proposed state budgets that could leave them facing further layoffs next year and a mandated furlough that cut their pay for the rest of this school year.
On Tuesday, May 5 the school system announced that it is eliminating another 223 positions next year, including teachers, assistant principals, counselors and curriculum facilitators. That brings to 375 the number of positions cut next year. The schools have found new jobs for all but 161 of those.
These budget woes are being driven by a series of state funding cuts, which haven't stopped coming. The latest came on Friday, May 1, when the state announced another funding cut for this year. Administrators estimate that the Guilford County Schools budget will be cut by $2 million. The Guilford County Schools Board of Education will decide what to cut at its May 12 meeting.
The $2 million state cut is only 0.3 percent of the school system's $651 million budget, but it comes at a difficult time because most of the money in that budget has already been spent or committed for the year, making it harder to find cuts. In December, the state cut revenue to Guilford County Schools by $2.8 million, or 0.43 percent of its budget.
Guilford County School Superintendent Mo Green said, "The news this week is particularly troubling, as it comes so late in the school year and we have already made significant cuts in our budget."
Philip Price, chief financial officer for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, told Guilford County Schools officials the state could start reducing its funding to school districts as soon as next week.
Ozment said school systems have 60 days to decide where to cut spending. She said, "The fact that they're going to cut it, that's a done deal."
Unlike the December cut, the $2 million will come from one state allotment – for non-instructional support, which funds such positions as school treasurers, custodians and school secretaries.
Ozment said one obvious answer would be for the school system to use money from other line items in the budget to cover the cut to non-instructional support.
School board member Nancy Routh said that's not easy to do with two months left in the year.
"Finding the money we sent back in December was hard enough," Routh said. "And here you are down to the last few weeks of the school year. There are not too many places to go where you have $2 million just sitting there that isn't encumbered or spent. I have no suggestions at the moment."
The school board is not yet considering cutting the compensation for school board members, which is now $13,200 a year for school board Chairman Alan Duncan and $12,000 a year for the other school board members.
The two rounds of state cuts add up to less than 1 percent of the school system's budget – a substantially smaller cut than many private businesses are facing this year. But the budget proposals from the governor, the state House and the state Senate for next year all envision much larger cuts.
The state announced the latest funding cut on the heels of a Tuesday, April 28, executive order by Gov. Bev Perdue that required all state employees, including school employees, to take a 0.5 percent pay cut for the rest of the fiscal year in exchange for 10 hours of leave, which has to be taken between June 1 and Dec. 31, 2009.
The mandatory furlough will automatically apply to all state-funded school employees. Guilford County Schools has about 4,500 teachers who are mostly state funded, although they get a locally funded salary supplement. The school system has about 500 teachers whose salaries are locally funded.
In a reverse of the usual budget season argument, the school board will have to decide whether to apply the mandatory furlough to locally funded teachers. The usual argument is over whether or not the school system has to match state pay raises for those teachers who are locally funded.
This year, matching pay raises is looking like a luxury problem. Perdue's budget includes a "step increase" for teachers and administrators – an average 2 percent pay raise that's theoretically automatic, but in fact is only given during some years by the state legislature. Green and Ozment only recently made the argument to the Guilford County Board of Commissioners that the school system is obligated, for reasons of morale and to avoid lawsuits, to match that raise for locally funded teachers.
With the topic suddenly shifted from pay raises to pay cuts, the question is whether the 500 locally funded teachers will have to share the pain from the governor's mandatory furlough.
School board member Paul Daniels said they should have to.
"It doesn't make a lot of sense if we're going to treat local employees the same as state employees for the purposes of raises, out of fear of being sued, but not for cuts," Daniels said. "It may be one of those situations where the sword cuts both ways. I think the way to run a railroad is to pay the local teachers the way you pay the state teachers, for morale reasons."
Mark Jewell, the president of the Guilford County Association of Educators, the local teachers' association, predicted the school board will apply the furlough program to locally funded teachers. He said, "I don't think you're going to see one teacher not penalized and another penalized."
Jewell said the average school employee will get a pay cut of between $200 and $300. That would put the employees' salaries at $40,000 to $60,000.
"You can imagine most of us are living from paycheck to paycheck already," Jewell said. "We don't have $300 to spare next month."
The odd situation in which some teachers are state funded and others locally funded arose in Guilford County, as it has in other counties, when the school board, like other school boards of large consolidated systems, particularly in urban counties, hired more teachers than are funded by the state, largely to reduce class sizes, particularly in poorer schools. The school board also adopted a local salary supplement for state-funded teachers to lift teacher pay above the state average.
As a result, Guilford County Schools has three categories of teachers: those who are funded by the state, but get a locally funded pay supplement; those who are totally funded by the county; and those who are federally funded. In the case of federally funded teachers, the federal government matches the local salary supplement. No teachers are wholly funded by the state.
The system is transparent to teachers, but would become instantly visible to them if the school board didn't equalize pay raises and cuts among all three categories – which is why school board members and administrators like doing so.
"To the best of my knowledge, nobody knows if they're state or locally funded," Jewell said. "But you'd better believe they're going to know when the money is deducted from their checks in May."
The state and local funding for teachers is also not widely understood by the public, and according to Hebert, by the county commissioners, who he said could ask for the school system to lay off teachers if they understood that the school system has more teachers than are funded by the state. "I hope nobody reminds the county of that," Hebert said. "That would be fun."
Ozment said the school system will divide the end-of-year pay cut among the two to four paychecks remaining for the year for such employees as school bus drivers and cafeteria workers. Teachers get paid monthly, so the entire cut will come out of their May paycheck.