The Franklin County school board said very little about a lot last Thursday.
Because negotiations open to the public, are to resume this afternoon on the campus of the former Brown Elementary School, board members offered scant insight into how they think the district will find about $750,000 in savings between now and the spring.
District employees were on the opposite end of the “speaking-out” spectrum, filling all available chairs in the Willie Speed board room, spilling into the aisles. Many of them, as well as students, wore placards around their necks that declared, such as in “I am a teacher,” their role in the school system, in large print letters with red magic marker.
Many rose to speak to give the school board much to consider during the current financial crunch, which contains proposals as drastic as a 20 percent across-the-board pay cut, and reducing the school year.
“We’re going to hear from you but we’re not going to be able to really respond,” said board chairman Jimmy Gander, in his welcome to the energized audience.
First to speak was Elinor Mount-Simmons, a teacher for 32 years in the district. She asked that the resolution of the crisis be a fair one, and that steps be taken to not repeat the budgeting mistakes that gave rise to the problem, which is that the district’s general fund balance is projected to fall below the state minimum of 2 percent of general fund revenue.
“We know we have dark days ahead,” she said. “We are willing to work with you.”
Mount-Simmons said it would be unfair to ask school employees to bear all the cost of the cutbacks.
“We didn’t cause the problems. We should all share equitably, all of us,” she said. “I want to feel assured that once we get through this and we will, we shall recover, I want some assurances in place, that these dark days won’t resurface.”
Donna Barber, also a longtime elementary school teacher, spoke of the financial demands on her family, including putting a son through college.
“When you’re talking about taking back a fifth of someone’s salary, you’re talking about someone not being able to make their (bills),” she said, making a point to include “Gander’s payment” in her list of financial obligations, referring to the cost of fuel.
“We’ve already taken such a hit from the bay, an economic hit,” Barber said. “Can we envision a Franklin County where people can't make their payments? How can people stay and work and thrive and teach and learn in a community where they can’t make a living? A lot of people don’t want to leave but they have to go where they can make a living.
“This is my primary source of income, this is what feeds my family,” she said. “These are the real things that I work very, very hard for. That’s what that pay represents. I just want you to see a personal story and see the real impact of the normal, average people, and to find a way other than have the teacher and other staff shoulder this financial crisis.”
Liz Frye, who drives a school bus, was clear and succinct. “We cannot afford a pay cut. As drivers we can’t afford this. That’s our concern,” she said. “They say our jobs are important; we’re the first face they see in the afternoon and morning.”
Patty Kulick, a voluntary pre-K teacher and paraprofessional, said she spoke for her fellow staffers in saying that a pay cut would mean more people leaving for better jobs. “A pay cut and I have to relocate,” she said. “I have family here and I’ve grown to love this place.”
Kulick’s daughter, freshman Jalynn Liston, spoke next, not about her family but about what’s on the mind of students. “You all are thinking about making a pay cut to the staff,” she said. “You’re thinking about making a cut to my and every other student’s education here.”
Gander commended Liston for her remarks, and then Cathy Wood, the union representative, said she taught Liston in her pre-K classroom several years ago. “She is one of those 14-year-old freshman that are wise beyond their years,” said Wood.
She informed the board that all school employees have been asked to wear a pink heart. “It’s a non-spoken symbol to say ‘We love our jobs,” said Wood.
She spoke in vague terms about the progress of the talks, noting the union had “reciprocated in a very kind and generous way I believe. Part of our job as educators is to listen and your side is also listening.”
Wood stressed a common theme found within the teaching ranks, that the financial problems “are the burdens of somebody’s blunder.
“They (the teachers) did not create the problems,” she said. “(Consider the) staff you have that have been diehard faithful. We are here and we have a job title and we are not just a dollar figure in a budget. We need to work together to look at the big picture and not do a quick fix.”
Abigail Shiver, who said she and her husband, owners of the Big Top grocery, were both products of the local school system.
“We have some wonderful schoolteachers in the system who will be hurt by this,” said Shiver. “To me they should not be punished for someone else’s mistake. As a business owner it’s not going to only affect me with my sales. These school teachers aren’t going to be able to pay their house payments.
“I’m not going to say anything about the situation we’re in,” she said. “I don’t know how we got to this situation and I pray to God that we don’t ever get to this situation again.
“As a business owner I understand we’re in a hard economic time. My husband and I took a pay cut so we didn’t have to lay off any of our people,” Shiver said. “For our system to stay in existence we have to take care of our people. The teachers are what makes this school system. We need to make a better job of taking care of our teachers.”
Her professional viewpoint turned to the personal. “I had teachers that didn’t care that I was a poor white child. They pushed me and there’s a lot of people like me that have become successful because of the caringness these teachers have given all of us,” said Shiver.
Apalachicola’s Bobby Miller closed the audience participation part of the meeting. “This is not an acceptable standard,” he said. “It seems like every time I turn around I hear something’s got to be done, we’ve got to gather up some money from somewhere.
“You as board members are ultimately responsible for this,” said Miller. “You are a policymaking committee. You can get the situation under control.”
Miller, married to a veteran elementary school teacher, said the crisis is having a negative effect. “You want them to make you an A school and the morale is at an all-time low,” he said. “That is the closest link you have to education. If it weren’t for the students we wouldn’t be here tonight.”
Gander sounded hopeful. “I hope we can work this out; I still believe we can,” he said. “If I could push a button and make it happen, I would.
“The school district is the second-largest employer in the county,” Gander said, noting that with cutbacks, “You’re not just taking it away from the employees. You’re taking it away from the community. It has a long-lasting effect.
“I’ve never seen the situation in Apalachicola bay oysters like it is now. I’ve never seen anything close,” he said. “We have catastrophe after catastrophe and we have to figure out a way to work this out.”
After the board handled its typical business issues, with no further announced staff retirements, Shannon Venable, the district’s director of finance, reported that as of the latest phase of state funding, the district would lose about $559,000 this fiscal year.
She said last month’s staff resignations would net about $38,000 in overall savings and with half the year over, the district is on track to show a negative balance of better than 5 percent, and that it would have to cut expenses by at least $750,000 to move out of the red zone.
Venable said declining enrollment would cost the district about $128,000 this year, with the district now at 1,148 total students at all its schools. “We’ve had more come in but lost another dozen since Christmas,” said Superintendent Nina Marks.
Marks, who said she’d met with Florida Department of Education officials six times in the past two weeks, reiterated what she has told the school board for several weeks” “The DOE is not going to swoop down on Franklin County and kick people to the curb,” she said. “They expect us to fix ourselves.”
In a telephone interview this week, Tiffany Cowie, public information office for DOE, underscored Marks’ perspective. “We know action will have to be taken pretty quickly to help the district recover. Our whole philosophy is anything we can allow the district to control we do. That’s how residents here in the state feel.
“Here’s one of those sides of having so much power: You are responsible for your budget,” Cowie said. “It’s in all of our best interests that they get out of this situation and are prospering.”
Cowie said Franklin is one of four Florida counties, the others Columbia, Martin, and Manatee, to have notified Tony Bennett, the state’s new commissioner of education, that their projected fund balance is below 3 percent.
“The department is waiting to receive further details of the district’s fiscal recovery plan.” she said. “He will decide if they need extra resources to get back on their feet. When I say resources I do not mean money.”
Bennett will have the option of putting together a financial emergency board, advisors who can help guide the district through the situation.
“It’s not that we don’t want to help them and give them money,” said Cowie. “The legislature didn’t appropriate any. We don’t have a pot to pull from to help them in that way.”