Tuesday, March 11, 2008

School Budget Refinements Continue

Tuesday's work and study meeting included an update on the budget situation that leaves the school district with a $5.8 million shortfall. Salary and fringe benefit increases, the cost of moving students from a temporary school into the new Emerson School, tuition increases and increased charter school costs make up the "financial challenges" the district faces for the 2008-09 school year.

The newest budget report emerges from what Interim Superintendent Garnell Bailey calls intensive "war room" talks with principals and other officials on reductions.

The $5 million shortfall is due to a state mandate that Plainfield, one of 31 needy Abbott districts, must begin to pay its “fair share” of property taxes toward school costs. The district has paid only $17,683,906 annually local school taxes since 1992, even as state aid increased to $99 million. In most suburban districts, the proportions are opposite, with property owners paying most of school costs.
For 2008-09, the state is requiring Plainfield to increase the local tax levy by 4 percent, to $18,391,262, as a step toward contributing about $33 million for a fair share.
To prepare the budget for submission to the state by March 6, the administration proposed cost-saving changes such as returning 32 academic coaches to the classroom, a reduction of $1.7 million. Another $1.2 million in savings was proposed by eliminating 34 kindergarten assistants. Other proposed cuts targeted five vice principals, five special education teachers, eight secretaries, nine parent liaisons, seven support staff such as middle school guidance and dropout prevention personnel, three security guards, four elementary assistants and one bus driver.
But on Tuesday (March 11, 2008), the list of cuts had changed to these reductions: Nine administrators to save $1 million; 1.5 information technology staff, $100,000; eight secretaries, $408,000; one bus driver, $47,000; one security officer, $47,500; 45 non-tenured teachers, $2,280,000; 17 kindergarten assistants, $561,000; seven certified support staff, $392,000; four clerical assistants, $132,000; and nine parent liaisons, $485,000. In addition, the Faces/School Based Youth Services program would be cut by half to save $376,000.
The administration will hold further meetings with principals and department heads today through March 17 to "maximize efficiencies" in closing the gap. Interim Superintendent Garnell Bailey presented class size figures for nine districts indicating a "best practice" number of 18 children in kindergarten classes and 28 students for most classes and 24 for science classes in other grades, while Plainfield currently has some very small classes.
"There is no need for classes to be occupied by six children," Bailey said.
The budget will be discussed again at the March 18 business meeting and a March 19 "school budget workshop" before the March 25 public hearing for budget approval. The final figure will be on the April 15 ballot, but because the reduction is mandated by the state, it will stand even if voters reject it.
All affected staff must receive non-renewal notices by May 14, Bailey said.
An overflow crowd Tuesday caused the meeting to be moved from the high school conference room to the cafeteria. Among comments from board members, Lisa Logan Leach called the proposed cuts "bottom heavy," but Bailey said the district administration was "already at bare bones."
Board member Martin Cox repeated School Business Administrator/Board Secretary Gary Ottmann's earlier finding that the district has lost about 1,400 students in recent years.
"So we have a very outdated model," Cox said.
In questions from the audience, Washington Community School Principal Anthony Jenkins asked what the district is doing to recruit students back to the schools. Bailey said even though charter school test scores are about the same as the district's, "Parents perceive that the (charter) schools are safer."
Bailey said the district must develop a "brand name" so parents know district schools are safe.
"All of us are the greatest marketing representatives for the district there is," Board President Patricia Barksdale said.
Barksdale said people have to show they believe in the children and "believe they can excel."
--Bernice Paglia


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