Franklin County School district employees voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to ratify a contract for the current school year designed to bring the district’s fund balance into positive territory.

But whether it will prevent the need for future cuts this school year remains a question.

Rik McNeill, executive director of the Florida Education Association’s Central Panhandle Service unit, and a key negotiator on behalf of the county teachers and education support personnel, said the one-year contract, from July 1, 2012 until June 30, 2103, passed easily in secret balloting by both teachers and support personnel.

All teachers, regardless of whether they are among the roughly two-thirds who are members of the Franklin County Teachers Association union, were entitled to vote on the contract. Of these, 93 percent voted yes.

The same was true of the non-teaching staff, with all of them, not only members of the Franklin Education Support Professionals Association, able to vote. Of these, 78 percent voted yes.

The contract still remains to be approved by the district, with school board members expected to vote yes when they meet Feb. 21.

Key to the contract is a provision that will enable the district to delay the June 2012 paychecks to teachers on 10-month contracts until July 2013, the first month of the next fiscal year.

Shannon Venable, the district’s finance director, said that by delaying these last two paychecks until July, the district will save about $396,000, just slightly below the roughly $402,000 in property tax proceeds that the district saw disappear during the July to October 2012 budget process.

Venable said that the state will allow for a “prior period millage adjustment” for the upcoming fiscal year which will enable the district to assess additional millage in 2013-14 because of the declines between July and October 2012. “We’re going to see that on our tax revenues that come in next year,” she said.

In addition, the teachers agreed to two furlough days, June 10 and 11, which are two planning days that follow the last day of school on June 7. The furloughs will save the district about $28,000 per day, or $56,000.

“Teachers will have an opportunity to appear at work, but they don’t get paid for it,” said Venable.

While the deal takes a huge step towards balancing the budget by the end of the fiscal year, it is not expected to bring the district to the minimum 2 percent of overall revenue that the state requires a district have in its fund balance.

Venable said that with these changes, the unrestricted fund balance will be negative $110,976 at year’s end, and that when the more than $200,000 in restricted funds are factored in, it will be a positive $131,000, still short of the 2 percent.

“The problem is not solved,” she said. “We will still be in financial woes after these changes this week. I think both parties are aware this doesn’t solve the problem.”

McNeill said it was the understanding of the two unions that finishing the year with a positive fund balance would satisfy the Florida Department of Education.

“We should finish the year in the black, not in the red,” he said. “That’s what we were told, that they (the administration) have been told by the DOE. That we needed to get to zero, or into the positive, but they weren’t going to be held to the 2 percent threshold this year.

“We need to get there in the future,” McNeill said. “I think we need to get to the end of this year and see the number of students we have at the end of the year, and what faculty has retired or moved away, and then make some determination of how we’re going to move ahead to meet the needs of students and the county and to get to a more positive fund balance.”

McNeill credited the district’s receipt last week of money from a property tax settlement with The St. Joe Company (see sidebar) as being instrumental in making the deal possible.

“We were very fortunate that settlement of monies from St. Joe came through,” he said. “It absolutely helped out. Without it, (the deal) might not have happened as easily as I did. The employees were reluctant to bear the burden of the all of these other errors that have occurred.”

At last week’s regular school board meeting, the board heard from two representatives of the employee ranks, both of whom urged the district not to make cuts to employee salaries and benefits.

“I’m not here to brag. I’m not here to complain,” said Paul Bankston, a paraprofessional on staff for the past 15 years. “I just want my income, if it can't go up, to stay the same. I don’t want no money taken away from me.”

He said his paycheck last year totaled a little more than $18,000, and he then brought home a little more than $12,000, with about $3,000 spent on out-of-pocket costs for health insurance and other benefits.

“I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t play the lottery,” he said. “It’s not like I spend this on bad habits. (But) I’m not the healthy man I was years ago.

“I know it’s tough, I know what you’re going through,” Bankston told the school board. “I’m not a number on the paper, I’m one voice for the voice of hundreds.”

Cathy Wood, the teachers union representative, commended the work of athletic director Josh Wright, who had served as the union’s chief negotiator. Wright left last week to take a job as football coach at Arnold High School in Panama City.

She credited the district with the cuts it had made so far this fiscal year.

“Have we cut corners? We’ve proven we can live on potatoes and beans and I think it’s working,” Wood said. “I can’t say it’s the morale that’s the best.”

She also alluded to the case of Richard Metcalf, a former middle school math teacher who was dismissed in January, eight months after an incident involving an altercation with a student that the district believed constituted professional misconduct.

Wood said Metcalf had been cleared by the Florida Department of Education’s Office of Professional Practices “of all wrongdoing,” although it is arguable whether a decision not to sanction a teacher constitutes a complete exoneration.

“If we rehired that person we would save all expenses of attorney fees,” said Wood.

In her report, School Board Attorney Barbara Sanders asked the school board to refer Metcalf’s appeal of its decision to the Florida Department of Administrative Hearings. She opted against recommending that the five-member school board hear the matter.

“That administrative law judge makes a decision ‘Was what the board did right or wrong?’ That’s the bottom line and they refer it to back to you. Some options you can adopt or not adopt,” she said.

Sanders said attorney Bob Harris will represent the district in the appeal, with attorney fees covered by the district’s insurance company. She said the district will be liable for several thousand dollars in administrative fees.”