When the school board met with teachers last week, it was a friendlier session than last year, but the issue was much the same – how to find ways to cut costs without cutting into morale.

The Nov. 8 afternoon workshop ran more smoothly than it did one year ago, when school board members felt on the defensive from a barrage of questions, many of them pointedly hostile.

Instead, after consultation with the school board, Franklin County Education Association solicited questions from teachers, and then drew them up into a prepared list. Beginning with Cathy Wood, the union president, representatives of the teaching staff each took a portion of the 35 questions and asked them to the school board.

The mood was cordial, at times testy, but overall a mood of support and reassurance prevailed.

It even grew comic at one point, after the question was posed by teachers as to what the school district could do to improve parents’ involvement in their children’s education.

“If we could answer that question, we would probably solve a lot of these other problems,” said Chairman Jimmy Gander. “If it would help, I would dress up in a clown uniform.”

The school board workshop took place amidst ongoing talks with the teachers union which, because it is a lean year, are not expected to result in pay hikes. Significant changes to the health insurance offerings, however, will be made, after both the school board and the teachers have agreed to a new blended plan that enables employees to enroll in either the Capital Health Plan HMO or the traditional Blue Cross Blue Shield plan.

This move is expected to save the district $150 a month to ensure teachers who opt for the HMO. This could save the district $328,000 a year, according to Scott Fenstermaker, the owner of Strategic benefits Group, the district’s health insurance consultant.

The issue of cost cutting loomed large over the workshop, beginning with a report by Shannon Venable, the new finance director, who told school board members that the district was about $780,000 over budget, and facing declining revenues.

In her report that opened the workshop, Venable said property values had declined 7.3 percent, leading to a $563,000 drop in property tax revenue, which makes up about three-quarters of all the monies received from local sources.

She then ticked off a list of budgetary items that would pose challenges, including $80,000 first budgeted in BP funds that Venable had doubts the district would ever get. “I’m not confident we will receive it,” she said.

In addition, there are an additional $30,000 in property tax refunds, not placed in the 2012-13 budget, and about $106,000 in expenses that were under budgeted in the $216,000 set aside for plant operations, such as infrastructure needs and including investment in computer equipment, she said.

This total deficit of $779,000, Venable said, could balloon to $1.19 million, if the district is saddled with another $407,000 in expenses. Of this, $300,000 would be for resuming funding teachers’ entire pension contributions, rather than benefitting from a 3 percent shift to employee, as the Florida legislature has passed. The remaining $107,000 could come if the possible sequestration of federal monies comes to pass early next year.

Superintendent Nina Marks responded to the first question to say that the district had so far made $313,000 in cuts, prompting Gander to suggest more needed to be done.

“All these things are good ideas, maybe they’re not,” he said. “But when you look at the budget and some 90 percent are salaries and benefits, everything else is really immaterial.

“We shouldn’t go back to our employees and ask them to give any more up. The only thing you can do is have fewer employees and the way to do that is through attrition. I think that would probably be as fast as anything we can do, people leave the systems all through the year.

“If three people leave and three people aren’t rehired, it could be $200,000,” he said. “To me that’s the only way. The only way you’re going to save is to make cuts in personnel.

We have overspent the budget for the past three years, and the only way we’re going to fix it is to spend less.”

Elementary school teacher Paula Dykes rose to speak. “We’re talking about teachers, again cutting teachers, but then we turn around and we make up new positions that’s not teachers and we fill those positions,” she said. “Teachers are working with kids; they’re the ones that are needed.”

Gander granted that “you got to attrition everybody,” and Dykes responded with her perspective on the changes she has seen in the system over the course of consolidation.

“We thought that (consolidation) was going to be the end of our problem but since we’ve moved here, nothing’s been roses.

“It’s the same problem we had at all three schools. I haven’t seen anything different; the same problems we’ve had for the longest,” said Dykes. “I don’t see y’all being able to balance the budget on the backs of the teachers.

“The teacher is the most important thing in that child life and y’all need to think of some of the way to balance the budget other than teachers,” she said.

Gander said he did not believe in “riffing,” meaning enacting a Reduction in Force procedures.

Dykes continued, noting that more than a one-third of the district’s 73 teachers were on hand for the session, and represented a broad spectrum of views.

“You know what the problem is? Teacher morale,” she said.

One issue the teachers pressed was the issue of how digital information is handled at the administration level. Al London, who oversees infrastructure demands on the district, said a decision has been made to cut ties with Blue Manta regarding their contract to handle E-Rate filings that recoup reimbursements for implementing telecommunication and Internet access.

“We have tried doing E-Rate in-house and on top the normal jobs people were doing. E-Rate is complicated, time-consuming and exacting and we were not successful.

“We were down to a deadline where we had to file E-Rate, we were coming up against a deadline, so we hired Blue Manta,” he said, noting the deal was $225 a month plus a percentage.

“We received $22,000 and we have since then notified Blue Manta the agreement has been terminated,” London said.

Teachers also raised the issue of comp time for such things as doctors appointments, and Board Attorney Barbara Sanders made it clear that such comp time was available only for hourly employees and not for professional workers.

“This has been the biggest morale killer of all,” said Dykes. “Anything y’all could have done when they started taking our time like that? Yall don’t pay us to come out for those Xmas programs.

“In my heart I know I’m wrong, because I’m supposed to be doing it for kids, but if you don’t care, why should I?” she said.

Marks said that there is no evidence that any teachers have been docked time, but Gander appeared to disagree, noting that he had seen evidence in a teacher’s paycheck.

“We’ve checked in finance and there’s not been one penny taken from anybody,” she said. “I would like to see it.”

School Board Member George Thompson, a postal service employee, said he has to use leave time, or go without pay, when he does not complete his scheduled time.

Wood sounded a conciliatory note, saying that it should be “left up to the administration to find the abusers who constantly come in late and sign out early.

“The consequences are offensive and insulting to people,” she said. We need to go back to that unwritten policy.”