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Teachers urge caution—Personnel cuts detrimental?

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As with many other school districts around the state, the financial picture for the Yellow Springs district isn’t as rosy as it was before the economy went sour. But, according to some of the local teachers, it isn’t as bad as districts such as Xenia and Fairborn that rely so heavily on state funds that both announced $5 million budget reductions this month. And with a healthy cash carryover, the Yellow Springs district should be “judicious” about decisions to eliminate staff and cut benefits, which could end up hurting the district more than helping, the teachers said.

Yellow Springs is looking to cut $500,000 out of its budget this year, to better balance the books and prepare for leaner income tax revenues and deeper cuts in state funding. According to the current rate of deficit spending, the district’s cash reserves, from a one-time corporate tax payment, are expected to supplement the budget until the beginning of 2014. 

Administrators have indicated that the biggest expense load, about 85 percent, goes to compensating personnel. A combination of cost-cutting measures, therefore, is likely to include reducing staffing by between two and eight positions. And while pay freezes have already been assumed in the budget forecast, step increases and benefit reductions are also items that could be reduced in the 2011-2012 budget that Superintendent Mario Basora will recommend to the school board at the regular meeting on March 10.

But the teachers who represent the district teachers union, the Yellow Springs Education Association, said last week that cutting positions could have a negative effect on the budget. At a time when the district is still flush with cash and the economy is starting to show signs of recovery, making a reduction in force (RIF), is neither responsible nor best for the students. 

“My concern with RIFing is, be careful about reducing staff because you can’t hire them back,” YSEA Vice-President Shawn Jackson said. “It’s not a stable solution -— it hurts the kids, and if you’re basing the decision on a forecast that’s not accurate, that’s dangerous.”

The district’s five-year budget forecast is a tool that districts are mandated by the state to use for financial planning. Due to a $1.27 million tax surplus the Yellow Springs district received when the Antioch Company restructured in 2005, the district, with a total budget of $8.4 million for this 2011 fiscal year, will still have a cash balance of about $2,295,510, according to the treasurer’s five-year forecast. That means the district is carrying cash reserves equal to 27 percent of its budget. 

Maintaining a strong fiscal profile is important for the district, agreed Jackson, who teaches social studies at McKinney Middle School, and YSEA President Vickie Hitchcock, who teaches computing at Yellow Springs High School. But for most districts, a 10–15 percent cash surplus is plenty to secure salaries and other needs, should a district have unexpected revenue shortfalls or expense overruns, Jackson said. But maintaining a surplus as large as Yellow Springs has, while cutting jobs and benefits to teachers and staff, is taking an unnecessary precaution that will actually diminish the program the schools can offer to students, he said. 

The district has relied on a steady revenue stream of an average annual $600,000 generated by open enrollment students, who come to Yellow Springs schools because of a combination of small class sizes and a good range of courses and electives to choose from, Hitchcock said. Reducing that program risks losing those students, she said.

In addition, the forecasts required by the state are notoriously pessimistic in the depiction of both revenues and expenses, Jackson said. For example, according to Ohio Department of Education records, in 2006 the Yellow Springs forecast indicated the district would likely take in $2.2 million in property tax revenue in 2010. But in actuality, in 2010, the district brought in $3.1 million in property tax revenue. And in expense accounting in 2006, the forecast predicted the district would hit $522,000 in deficit spending in 2010. But instead in 2010 the district held over $1.6 million in excess cash. 

“That’s a $2 million error,” Jackson said. “Historically, the forecasts are always wrong.”

The teachers aren’t asking for “pie in the sky,” but they want to be treated fairly at a time when the district seems able to do so, Terry Graham and MaryAnn Christopher said. Teachers will accept cuts when the district is truly in need, such as in 1990, when union financial analysts verified that the district was broke. 

“At times when there’s zero money, we’ve taken pay freezes and increased our share of benefit coverage,” said Christopher, the district librarian. “It isn’t that we’re not responsive.”

The time to start cutting staff is the moment when the budget registers a low level of reserves for the coming year, Christopher said. But this isn’t one of those years. If it were, then administrators should also consider pay cuts for the health of the district, Jackson said.

“It’s an issue of fairness and equity,” he said. “If you’re increasing insurance rates and instituting pay freezes, it has to be everyone.”

Some teachers, however, feel that the district’s financial worries are immediate and that trimming the budget now is necessary to ensure a stable school system for the future. Mills Lawn teachers Sarah Amin and Jody Chick are grateful that school leaders have been open and honest with them about the budget from the beginning. High school social studies teacher John Day also believes the district has an obligation to reconfigure a more sustainable budget now, but he cautioned leaders to be considerate of the negative effects of cutting program. And he welcomed ideas on ways to raise the income side of the equation, through nontraditional means and if necessary through a tax increase to help the district weather the recession.

Putting a tax levy on the ballot would at least allow voters to decide whether they want to cut the school program beyond its current level, Graham said. 

In making incremental reductions over the past several years, the schools have lost home economics and computer science teachers, one janitor at the high school, the Mills Lawn librarian and have reduced the orchestra teacher’s position. Now that the janitor can’t get to every room every day, the high school teachers often clean their own rooms. And Christopher, the district’s sole librarian, now shuffles between the high school and Mills Lawn trying to demonstrate search and presentation techniques to each class and finds that circulation has declined. Other reductions to the co-curricular activities budget has meant the loss of programs such as the McKinney team leader, the liaison who united efforts of teachers and parents to serve students’ needs, Jackson said.

Especially given the recent set of cuts, the school can’t afford to cut anymore, he believes.

“There’s very little fat in this small district — it’s very lean,” he said. “Why would we want to make immediate cuts that will affect the program, the students and the overall educational opportunities in Yellow Springs? We need to be very judicious and careful about overreacting. If the trend continues, then we can see what programs we want to keep and which we want to cut.”

*An article in next week’s News will look at the budget from the school administration’s perspective.


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