School board reviews governor’s budget proposal, prepares for cuts 

Published 8:14 am Thursday, February 15, 2018

passes on superintendent’s recommendation to close McKinney Elementary 

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STANFORD — The cuts are coming; that much is true for all school districts across the state. Like many others, the Lincoln County Board of Education is looking for ways to free up enough funds to cover cuts included in Gov. Matt Bevin’s budget proposal.

The cuts, as currently proposed, translate to about $1 million in additional cost to the Lincoln County School District, according to Superintendent Michael Rowe.

Rowe briefed board members during last Thursday’s working session on the total amount of savings the district has generated so far through staff restructuring and attrition, in anticipation of state budget cuts.

“(To) date, we have saved $671,118 in our budget,” Rowe said. “Some of these decisions haven’t been easy. Some of the conversations I’ve had with folks when I’ve had to transfer them has not been easy. But by doing this, nobody’s been fired, everybody still kept a job unless they retired.”

Working closely with Marsha Abel, director of finance, and Jeannie Cooper, personnel and human resources coordinator, Rowe said the three have continued to look for new areas of savings.

“I can’t think of anything, right now, more we could do through this to save any additional money,” he told board members. “We’re trying and we’re looking at everything.”

Rowe said he doesn’t believe the governor’s budget will be approved as proposed, but the end result will still include cuts in state funding for schools. The question is how big the cuts will be.

“I know it’s not going to be as good as we’ve got now, so it’s going to be somewhere in between there,” he said. “For example, if they cut transportation like the governor has said that he wants done, we’re going to lose $711,000 yearly in transportation funds. And we don’t have the contingency to make that last more than two years.”

The district’s current contingency fund is $1.45 million, according to Abel.

According to the Rowe, 15.4 percent of the Lincoln County School District’s entire budget is allocated to administrative costs. Compared to similar-sized districts, Rowe said Lincoln County lands in the bottom-third as far as the amount of funds allocated for administrative costs.

“If the governor’s budget passes, something for the board to consider would be cutting positions,” Rowe said. “That’s something that saves money. We’ve cut through attrition as much as (we can find)…”

Option No. 1: cut teacher positions 

Rowe presented board members with a list of three proposals for cutting positions and how much money each scenario would save the district.

All three proposals provided during Thursday’s meeting suggest the district maintain it’s current student-to-teacher ratio of 24-to-1 for kindergarten through grades, while increasing the ratios for fourth through 12th grades.

The first proposal suggests increasing the 25-to-1 ratio for fourth through 12th grades to 26-to-1.

That scenario would save the district $189,149.40 by cutting a total of 3.9 teachers across the district. The document provided during the meeting breaks down the teachers cut per school: Crab Orchard, Highland, McKinney and Waynesburg elementary schools would all lose one-tenth of a position; Hustonville and Stanford elementary schools would lose two-tenths of a position each; the middle school would lose 1.4 positions; and the high school would lose 1.7.

The second proposal suggests an increase in the student-to-teacher ratio to 27-to-1. It would save the district a total of $250,618.80 by cutting 7.7 teacher positions across the district. The cuts per school would be one-tenth at McKinney; two-tenths at Crab Orchard; three-tenths at Highland, Hustonville and Waynesburg; half a position at Stanford; 2.6 positions at the middle school; and 3.4 positions at the high school.

The third proposal would save $521,314.20 by increasing the ratio to 28-to-1. A total of 11.3 teacher positions would be cut: two-tenths at McKinney; four-tenths at Crab Orchard, Highland and Waynesburg; half a position at Hustonville; seven-tenths at Stanford; 3.8 positions at the middle school and 4.9 positions at the high school.

“The reason we’re talking about this now is we must give our tentative allocations to our schools by March 1,” Rowe said.

The district has until May 1 to give final allocations.

“In order to have the money to shore up for what the budget is going to look like, is this something the board wants to consider?”

Board member Alan Hubble said it’s something no one wants to talk about.

“It’s not going to help the kids any, for one thing,” he said.

Rowe said he’s open to any ideas for how the district can save more money.

“This is something that’s going on across the state right now,” he said.

Board member Theresa Long said she hates that cuts always have to happen in the classroom.

“It’s the teachers who have to lose their job…It’s putting 28 kids in a classroom, or 27 kids. It’s always the teacher,” she said. “…and I don’t have the solution, by all means, I don’t. But that’s what we’re about, the education and the kids, the classroom for the children. Like I said, I don’t know what the solution is, but if there was any other cost-efficient way to solve it without taking or adding more children to the classroom … I don’t know.”

If the district is going to entertain cutting positions, Rowe said he recommends approving cuts for the tentative allocations due March 1.

“If for some reason, the budget comes back and it’s just like it is now, by May 1 we can give all the positions back,” he said. “but what I hate to do is say we’re going to give you the same amount of positions right now, then, come May 1, say we’re going to cut you 11.3 teachers across the district. I think it’s better to take, then give back, versus give, then take back in the end.”

Rowe asked principals present at the meeting for their input and how the proposed cuts would affect their schools individually.

“At the high school, putting more kids in the classroom amounts to cutting programs. It’s not as easy as saying ‘we’re going to put 28 per room…,’” said Lincoln County High School Principal Michael Godbey. “The ripple effect of that becomes, if we cannot have career pathways for kids to complete, then it goes into accountability and our accountability spirals backwards. And I don’t think any of us — I don’t want to go back to priority (status).”

If staff is cut at the high school, Godbey said LCHS will not continue to make the progress it has been since exiting priority (persistently low-achieving) status.

“It’s taking everybody we have and the systems we have in place and those systems require people to make those systems work. If you remove those people from those systems, then it doesn’t work,” he said. “The bottom line is kids suffer. Kids suffer in the end.”

LCHS and middle school programs that would likely be cut include agriculture, foreign language, family consumer science and technology courses that are not included in the overall accountability assessments.

“We have a large population of kids who benefit from those programs,” Godbey said.

Long said there will be both classified and certified staff retirements, which could provide some additional savings.

Health insurance costs could also be shifted from the state to local districts.

“I’m a state retiree, so I know how you guys feel,” she said. “It’s not just your pension, it’s mine too.”

Photo by Abigail Whitehouse Lincoln County Superintendent Michael Rowe discusses budget cuts.

Option No. 2: close McKinney Elementary

The other option for saving the district money proposed by the superintendent was one that drew an emotional response from several at the meeting.

“Part of my job for the board is to discuss every option I think that’s possible for the district to save money. This has, I guess, sort of been the elephant in the room since I’ve been here. We’re going to talk about McKinney Elementary,” Rowe said.

Last year, the district’s facility planning committee discussed consolidating McKinney and Hustonville Elementary schools into one building and Highland and Waynesburg Elementary school into another but the district chose to go in a different direction.

“Our strategic planning committee has brought up the idea saying, ‘if you’re going to cut positions, are you not going to have the conversation about closing a school that has a limited population?’” Rowe said. “I said, ‘I can’t speak for the board but I do know that’ll be the most difficult decision any board member would have to make, closing a school, because it’s also part of the community’.”

Rowe provided a breakdown of costs associated with McKinney Elementary, including all salaries (with benefits calculated into the total) and operational expenses.

According to the documentation, McKinney Elementary has three administrators, 10 certified positions, 11 classified positions, two preschool positions and one 21st Century Community Learning coordinator. The operational costs for the school includes electricity, coal, maintenance, water, mowing and telephone, with electricity being the largest cost at $35,300.

“So it’s only $70,000 to keep the school open, besides personnel,” Wilson said.

Rowe and Abel both said the immediate savings would be about $70,000 per year and eventually through attrition, the district would save an additional $230,000 a year in salaries and benefits.

“We still owe bond money on (McKinney) and Highland,” he added. The district has until 2020 to pay it off.

Hubble said personally he is against closing McKinney because it would take time to save the money from salaries and benefits.

“So I mean, really, we’re not really gaining anything because you still have to have all these positions even if you move the children somewhere else…” he said.

Rowe asked board members which proposals they would like to continue to consider moving forward.

“Now, this is just certified (the proposal to cut positions), I can also bring proposals on the classified side, too, if you want to make cuts on that side,” he said.

According to the most recent payroll, the director of finance said 387 classified employees were paid and there are around 350 certified employees.

Board members instructed Rowe to gather information on potential cuts in classified positions for the regular meeting Thursday (tonight).

“If I had to choose between the two, I would talk more about McKinney than I would cutting teachers because I think our kids need more teachers in a classroom versus a school that’s 150 or less,” Rowe said.

McKinney’s total enrollment for kindergarten-5th grade is 138 students, according to the Kentucky Department of Education’s school report card, which was last updated in October 2017. The total does not include preschool students.

“Is that an easy decision? No. Do we have people here who love their school and are passionate about it? yes. Do we have a community over there that’s passionate about it? Yes,” Rowe said.

Wilson said if the district doesn’t make these decisions, the state will make them.

“I thought I probably would’ve been notified of this, if this was going to be discussed at this meeting, but this is the first that I’ve heard about it,” said McKinney Principal Jeff Craiger. “I’m too upset to talk right now.”

McKinney’s Instructional Coach Jennifer Smith said she understands enrollment numbers and ratios have to be considered but McKinney’s needs are different than other schools in the district.

“There’s a lot more you’ve got to take in and think about,” Smith said. Fewer students doesn’t necessarily mean fewer responsibilities for staff, she added.

Craiger reiterated that point, saying he doesn’t like comparing schools on staffing allocations alone.

“I don’t want to go down that road of comparing things. I don’t like it when it’s done,” he said. “We seem to be the whipping boy when it comes to, you know, ‘well McKinney’s only got whatever…’ In reality, it’s just as hard. There are different challenges in different places.”

During Craiger’s 18 years working in the Lincoln County School District, he said the closure of Mckinney has always been rumored.

“Eventually, if there’s a school closed, yeah, it’s probably going to be McKinney because we’re the smallest and we’re an older school,” he said. “Especially since the nickel tax didn’t pass.”

Craiger said he thought the process of closing a school would require more time and planning.

“These are just the things we’re trying to plan and see. It’s not what we want to do, it’s what we have to do,” Wilson said. “We’re just trying to find the best way out where everybody survives and where nobody loses a job.”

Revisiting the nickel tax is also an option, as far as generating revenue to make up for anticipated budget cuts, Rowe added.

“… It’s come down to a point where we don’t have a choice,” Wilson said.

Craiger said the school has experienced a high turnover rate in staff due to the discussion of closing McKinney, which he said resurfaced over the last few years.

“I had more turnover this year than I’ve ever had before,” he said. “We had those difficult conversations last year and were transparent about that. We were proposing the nickel tax, we had town hall meetings, which I thought were wonderful, and McKinney didn’t want the school to close.”

The district doesn’t have any recallable bonds that can be paid off early, according to Abel, so revenue from a nickel tax couldn’t be used right away to pay off bonds and free up money in the general fund.

“All you can do is save up and build a school later,” she said.

Hubble asked Rowe to look into potential savings that could be made through cutting classified positions.

“I’m not saying I’m against the tax, but for the problem we’re looking at here today, the nickel tax isn’t going to help us,” He said. “We need to raise regular property tax values … I don’t know how much can be raised in a year’s time.”

Board Attorney Jonathan Baker said if serious long-term and short-term decisions are not made in the district, the state will come in and take over.

“How long, with our contingency, is it going to last until the state takes over?” he said. “We’re two years away, if we don’t make decisions now. I think that’s something we heard a lot about from the meetings on the nickel tax last year, was our lack of long-term ‘looking ahead.’”

“I think, by not passing the nickel last year, it sealed McKinney’s fate. It may not be this year, it may be three years from now. But when the state comes in, we’re going to have to make decisions,” Baker said. “I think the nickel is what could’ve kept it open.”

Hubble said the nickel didn’t pass because the proposal included with the nickel tax was to close McKinney, Hustonville, Waynesburg and Highland.

“So everybody knows that’s here that didn’t know, we were in a meeting and the week before we agreed to pass the nickel tax if we could use the money to work on the buildings we had and keep everybody open,” Hubble said. “That was never set in stone to where we could pass it that way.”

Rowe clarified that the discussion was during a working meeting.

Craiger said he supported the nickel tax to build new schools.

“The one thing I did not want to see was us not pass it, close my school and my kids be sent to Hustonville,” he said.

Wilson said he didn’t vote in favor of the nickel tax last year because the Board of Education had not completely “cleaned it’s own house up” as far as trying to save money.

“Now this man has come in here and saved over half-a-million dollars cleaning our own house up,” he said. “…I’m just thinking we’ve already done that. We’ve done all we can do, as far as saving, and I don’t feel bad asking for it now.”

Craiger said Thursday’s discussion upset him because he did not know closing the school would be discussed.

“I’ll take that on my chin, it was my decision of whether to tell you or anybody else,” Rowe said. “I’d much rather have the conversation with the board before going and talking to people in the community. So that’s why I chose to do that, because I didn’t know which way the board would go and if the board says ‘we’re not going there’ then I don’t want to fire everybody up in the community over there like we did last year in our town hall meetings.”

Long said she would like to see McKinney represented at school board meetings more often.

“We would love to see you guys here more often representing McKinney,” she said. “…You’ve got to be here, you’ve got to be a voice, you’ve got to be seen, you’ve got to be heard. Please don’t just come when it’s a bad day. Come when there’s good things going on and tell us what’s going on in your school.”

Every principal should attend board meetings, Long added.

Rowe told board members he will look into the options available to school districts for raising property taxes and bring them to the board for the next meeting, as well as additional proposals for cuts in classified positions. Board members did not ask Rowe to pursue the proposal to close McKinney Elementary.

“No matter what we do, I think it would be better to be prepared for the worst and get better, as it would to be expecting the better and can’t take care of it,” Hubble said. “We need to be prepared for whatever is going to happen.”

Rowe confirmed the following Friday that the board did not want to consider the proposal to close McKinney Elementary and instead instructed him to look into the cuts in staffing allocations across the district.

Craiger declined to comment further following the meeting.