The Franklin County School Board voted last week to negotiate with its teacher and support personnel unions a reduction of $258,000 from this fiscal year’s budget.

At the Dec. 6 regular meeting, the board voted unanimously to press for what Superintendent Nina Narks estimated would be the equivalent of reducing payroll by about eight teaching positions, or roughly $190,000, and four support personnel, or about $68,000.

The board made it clear that while they seek this volume of cost reductions in the second semester, they are not on the record advocating for any specific cuts in personnel, or even precisely how many would be needed to eliminate what Finance Director Shannon Venable estimated could be a negative balance of almost $325,000 by the end of the fiscal year.

Venable provided a report that underscored many of the conclusions she has shared with the board over the past six weeks, that a decline in actual property tax proceeds since July’s initial estimate has significantly eroded the fund balance.

Venable said the unrestricted fund cushion of about $581,000, available in July’s budgeting, dropped away nearly entirely by Oct. 1. This depleted the 5.6 percent of the budget available in the fund balance, which clearly met state standards, to about 0.2 percent, or merely $18,000, well below what the state considers acceptable.

Venable said the district will be able to recoup about three-quarters of this drop of $563,000 in property tax proceeds in the 2013-14 fiscal year, but it is lost for the current year.

In an interview earlier this week, Rhonda Skipper, the property appraiser-elect, said the county’s computer vendor failed to properly factor in a required report on those properties valued in excess of a million dollars.

“There was an error that was on the school taxable values that did not kick out,” she said. “It was a $6 million data entry error. We were going to do whatever we could (to remedy the problem) but the school district’s millage rate had already maxxed out.”

Skipper noted the diminished property tax proceeds did not stem from any actions made by the Value Adjustment Board, which considers property owners’ challenges to their appraisals. Of the two dozen or so petitions submitted to the board, all ended up being withdrawn before the board had to decide on their merits, she said.


Forecasts miss enrollment decline

Compounding the district’s budget woes was a decline in the number of students enrolled in the district compared to initial forecasts. Funding for each full-time student (FTE) is provided by the state at between about $3,500 and $4,000, depending on a variety of weighted factors.

Chairman Jimmy Gander said the 2012-13 budget was built on an estimate of 1,298 students, but that the certified enrollment is now at 1,142, a difference of 156 students, worth in the neighborhood of $600,000.

“How do you miss it by 156 students? That’s over 10 percent,” asked Board Member George Thompson.

“I commend you on bringing the facts, as horrible as they may be, if we have to do things as drastic as what we’re talking about now and if there’s a possibility of losing over 100 students with FTE,” Gander told Venable. “What’s the next step? Are we going to do this again?”

Gander also said he was surprised to learn the district recently found nearly $400,000 in additional savings, mainly based on about $300,000 that Nick O’Grady, the district’s director of curriculum and vocational education, was able to save by amending the budgets of federal grants to cover salaries.

“If it’s there today, why wasn’t it there when we built this budget?” asked Gander. “Why can’t it be done on July 1? Was it easier to do in December than it was in June? That really bothers me.”

Marks said O’Grady found the savings by paying salaries out of these grants. “Those grants are not intended initially to pay for all these salaries,” she said. “That’s what he did, he shifted it. He’s had to amend his grants and go to the state and get permission to switch them to salaries.”

Gander continued his criticism. “I don’t understand why all the procrastination,” he told Marks.

“I don’t think there’s been any procrastination,” she replied.

Marks presented the school board with an outline that detailed several of the factors that contributed to what Venable said would be a nearly $325,000 deficit by year’s end if $1.1 million in cost savings weren’t found. These included lowering budget estimates for anticipated state revenue and raising the cost of plant operations to bring the district, as Venable put it, “in line with reality.”

Marks outlined several options for finding about $800,000 in savings, including the personnel reductions and federal grant adjustments, as well as $35,000 for reorganizing Carrabelle transportation routes, $14,000 for reducing the transportation foreman to part-time status, and $14,000 in energy savings by shutting down school buildings for two weeks over Christmas and Easter breaks.

Marks said she intended to ask school employees, through the collective bargaining process, to consider taking five furlough days, which would likely be scheduled on paid holidays so as not to disrupt school, as well as a 5 percent pay decrease and ending district coverage of the cost of dental insurance.

The superintendent initially wanted the board to specify the number of teaching and support personnel positions they intended to cut, based on average salaries, but School Board Attorney Barbara Sanders cautioned against defining the process that way.

“Those items by themselves have to be negotiated,” she said. “They were not advertised on the agenda, and this takes out items that have to be negotiated. We would have to negotiate a system for RIFs (Reduction in Force). It’s a lot more delicate than stating were going to fire (people). Whoever that eight and four (people are), it will involve the union contract. There are steps that have to be followed.”


Union reps speak out

The meeting began with remarks by both Tammy Sasnett, president of the support workers union, and Cathy Wood, who heads the teachers union.

“We have talked to our members and we are really supportive of trying to help us through this crisis,” said Sasnett, a paraprofessional who works as a teacher in the voluntary pre-kindergarten program. “We would just like to be involved in that process. This is our first job, this is where we want to be.

“We are the least paid employees, in the lunchroom, custodians, bus drivers,” she said. “We are willing to work to get through this crisis but we need to keep our positions.”

Wood said that warning signs had emerged at a faculty meeting earlier in the week.

“Some catch phrases are used whenever we gather, like ‘We’re in this for the kids’ and ‘We have our jobs because of the kids,’ and yet the morale is low, low, low,” she said.

“I know the economy has devastated our property values and that you have promised to lead us through this crisis. We need to work together every day,” Wood said. “We need more stakeholders that are being part of the process.”

Wood made mention of the pending union talks, which must work out a deal regarding any potential salary, benefit or personnel cuts.

“We are still at the negotiation table and we must use collective bargaining when we make any decisions,” she said. “Collective bargaining has to be used so we don’t have to consider any unfair labor practices.”

Both union representatives said their rank-and-file were concerned about the rumors circulating regarding job cuts. “It’s all hearsay and it’s frightening,” said Wood. “”We need a clearer line of communication.”

Marks said the administration has been on a tight timeline with state officials, who want to know what steps the district plans to take.

“They want an answer,” said the superintendent. “They want the board to approve some type of action. Shannon came up with an average income (for positions) and that’s how we put those numbers together, to try to satisfy the deficit. We asked Mr. Oehlert to take the dollar amount of savings for eight positions. It doesn’t matter where he pulls that from.”

Neither Marks nor the board member went into details as to what might be cut. But both board member Pam Shiver and Gander indicated some of their reasoning.

“If we continue to eliminate programs and the morale's down, the FTE’s going to continue to go down,” said Shiver.

Gander suggested he was opposed to any pay cut being retroactive to the start of the fiscal year. “I don’t think we ought to ask people to give back money that they’ve already received,” he said.

Gander also requested, and the board approved, a portion of the motion that asked the Florida Department of Education to become more directly involved with them on the process.

“I’d like to have DOE be a part of that. I want to get to the bottom, if we built this budget on the property values that we turned in,” he said. “There’s water coming in the boat and we’re bailing it out.”

The meeting concluded with an item that underscored the school’s budget woes, when the board voted down a request by the sheriff’s office to have them waive fees for an upcoming staff program.

Only Shiver and Thompson voted to waive the $400 fee, with the other three opposed. Marks noted that was for a social event for the department.

Board member Teresa Ann Martin said she supported the waiver “when it’s a hardship. But when we’re in hard times, I don’t feel we should.”