Beaufort Co. school board to district: Plan to cut budget is too harsh on support staff

Last week the Beaufort County Board of Education asked the school district to reduce its budget for next year by $5.1 million.

This week, the board approved the district’s full $256 million request — without any of the cuts — anyway.

On Tuesday night, the board rejected the district’s proposed cuts because it said the district had given them just 30 minutes to review the proposal, which board members said would have trimmed too much from support staff salaries, including that of school nurses and social workers, and only $5,000 from the superintendent’s office.

“This may be unhealthy,” board member William Smith said. “We’re sending the wrong message to our support staff by cutting from them.”

The board voted 7-4 to send the original $255,691,981 budget to the county for approval. Members John Dowling, JoAnn Orischak, Rachel Wisnefski and Smith opposed the motion.

Last week the board had asked the district to cut the budget by 2 percent to help recoup some of the $7.7 million shortfall in this year’s budget, a result of lower-than-expected taxes for the schools after a county property reassessment last year.

Board member Patricia Fidrych said that the proposed cuts were given to board members “25 or 30 minutes” before the meeting, leaving them with little time to vet the changes.

District Chief Financial Officer Tonya Crosby apologized to the board for giving them the proposal late and warned them they weren’t going to like it.

“I would say that this was a difficult exercise. Very difficult,” Crosby said. “In no circumstance are (the cuts) my recommendations, but they are what would be required.”

Many of the district’s proposed cuts would have affected administrators and classified staff — a category that includes bus drivers, data clerks, cafeteria workers and teacher’s assistants — as well as proposed raises for school nurses and social workers.

Interim Superintendent Herbert Berg recommended the board stick with the original amount, which is 6 percent more than last year’s budget, and be ready to adjust the budget based on how much the county decides to allocate to school funding.

Berg was optimistic about the district recouping the $7.7 million shortfall they anticipate from the county this year, telling the board Tuesday night that his discussions with Beaufort County Council Chairman Stewart Rodman have been frank and positive.

“I think Mr. Rodman and the county wants to help us,” Berg said. “I think they’re going to come back with that money they did not collect correctly.”

What cuts were proposed?

The proposed cuts were primarily focused on discretionary spending. Highlights included:

  • $1.3 million cut from an instructional coaches program, reducing the number of coaches in the district by 18
  • The removal of a cost-of-living allowance for administrators and classified employees — that is, principals and other supervisors, as well as non-teachers that include support staff (including data clerks, school secretaries, bus drivers, social workers and school nurses) — which equates to 2 percent of their wages and would have cut $1 million from the budget
  • Halving a locality supplement to administrators and classified employees to offset housing costs, which would cut $880,846 from the budget
  • The reduction of a proposed raise for teaching assistants by one pay grade, cutting $432,711
  • Eliminating a program to rehire retired South Carolina teachers in favor of filling positions with less experienced instructors, cutting $400,000
  • Moving a proposed raise for social workers and school nurses to a two-year phase-in, cutting $316,912
  • Reducing school supply funding by $5 for each pupil in the district, cutting $109,000

Wisnefski put forth a motion to approve the cuts, excluding those that affected rehiring retirees, instructional coaches and COLA and locality supplements. These exclusions made up approximately $3.5 million of the proposed $5.1 million cuts. The motion failed, 2-9.

“I made the motion to get the ball rolling on the cuts,” she said. “I know there are more board members who are interested in making more cuts.”

What is this $7.7 million shortfall?

A major factor in the budget is an anticipated shortfall of $7.7 million in tax revenue from the county to the school system.

Rodman, chairman of County Council, said this is largely due to 2006’s Act 388, which exempts primary residences from school operating taxes in favor of a 1-cent increase on sales tax.

Rodman said many property owners in Beaufort County have registered their homes as their primary residences to “approximately cut their taxes in half.”

In turn, this has led to a consistent shortfall in school operating taxes collected since the act went into effect, especially in years after property value reassessments.

“Every four years, they short the school district, and then complain it’s our fault,” Berg said of the county reassessment results.

The county has planned an audit to examine the cause of the continuing shortfall. It is expected to wrap up June 30, nearly a week after the deadline to approve the district’s budget.

Berg said in the case that a budget has not passed by then, the board would need to introduce a continuing resolution to allow the district to continue spending at its current rate.

Wisnefski said that while she thinks the audit “can reveal a lot of things that can be beneficial to the district,” she didn’t want to base the budget on the assumption that the shortfall will be recovered, which motivated her vote against the $256 million budget.

“I don’t ever like to assume anything,” she said.

Rodman said the county will be “sensitive” to the needs of the district after the shortfall.

He said he didn’t remember the 2017 budget recertification, but noted the budget can change substantially before its second reading by the council. After the second reading, scheduled for June 17, any substantial changes may lead to another reading before the final vote.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Crosby and Berg stressed this window of time to make changes.

“There is the possibility that those revenue amounts could be reduced, therefore forcing further discussion of cuts going forward in the future,” Crosby said. “So instead of doing it once and then again when we talk to Council, if we could do it one time and not be adding and subtracting back and forth at each discussion, I think that would be a healthier, clearer discussion.”

What else is happening with the budget?

Much of Tuesday’s discussion centered on disagreements over the district’s proposal, with many board members asking for alternatives to cut.

“I was really hoping to see more fat cut from the district office,” Smith said. “I think there are some positions right down here that could be consolidated. There’s a lot of people making a lot of money.”

Board member Melvin Campbell objected to cutting instructional coaches as a former teacher, while member Cathy Robine advocated for cutting them and possibly rehiring them as teachers.

Member Richard Geier advocated for a hiring freeze at the district level to save money, which Wisnefski and Smith supported.

“I strongly believe in two weeks you can find some other areas to cut,” Dowling told Crosby. “I don’t think this should be in concrete. This is not a list of the only areas we can cut.”

Berg said that finding other sources for restriction would have been difficult, given the board’s directive to not make cuts to the classroom. He said that in the past, he had made budget cuts by slightly increasing classroom sizes.

“Putting a restriction on no classroom impact, or minimum, is a really good idea,” Berg said. “But when 80 percent of your budget is in personnel, generally that really restricts what you do.”

What’s next?

The budget will go before the county council’s finance committee on June 3, and to the entire council for its first reading on June 10. The second and third readings of the budget by the council are scheduled for June 17 and 24.

Rachel Jones covers education for the Island Packet and the Beaufort Gazette. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has worked for the Daily Tar Heel and Charlotte Observer. Rachel grew up in Ayden, NC, surrounded by teachers.