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School board weighing superintendent’s proposed cuts to close $3.2M deficit

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Alamance-Burlington school board members heard Tuesday afternoon a revised financial reduction plan that school officials say are needed in the next few months to close a $3.2 million budget deficit that ABSS is projected to have when the fiscal year ends June 30.

School officials outlined three options for school board members during their latest work session Tuesday afternoon.

If all three options were approved by school board, it would save a total of $3.7 million in state and county funding but have little impact during the current fiscal year (see accompanying chart for a breakdown of all potential cuts).

The revised financial reduction plan calls for eliminating 26.5 positions that are currently filled – now titled “separations,” rather than a Reduction-in-Force, or RIF – as well as eliminating some vacant positions, three specialty programs, and reducing months of employment for other existing employees.

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Originally, the potential RIF that superintendent Dr. Dain Butler announced the evening of Friday, February 2, called for eliminating 24 positions (some vacant); reducing months of employment for 30 existing employees; and eliminating four specialty programs.

Butler’s initial recommendation had been estimated to save $5.9 million in state and county funding but would’ve had little impact on the projected deficit for the current fiscal year.

One of the specialty programs targeted two weeks ago for elimination – the Splash, or Spanish immersion program offered at several elementary schools, has been spared the budget axe for now, based on the revised financial reduction plan presented Tuesday.

The Splash program is state-funded and currently costs $1.4 million for 19 teachers and instructional materials, based on information that ABSS previously provided to The Alamance News.

Though no vote was requested or taken Tuesday afternoon, the discussion about the proposed “Financial Reduction Plan” consumed two hours of the school board’s 4½-hour work session.

Option One: Programs, practices, and vacant positions

The first option – described changes to practices; elimination of several specialty programs; and cutting 23 vacant positions – is estimated to save $1.7 million per year.

Under the “practices” portion, the school system would end a practice of continuing to pay principals their same salaries – i.e., a “hold harmless provision” that was actually tied to student academic growth scores – when their students fail to meet yearly academic growth targets.

No dollar figure was given Tuesday to indicate how much ABSS would save by ending the “hold harmless” method of paying principals, though Butler told the board, “I believe we had discussed as high as $18,000.”

The “hold harmless provision” apparently took effect statewide in 2022, when state Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt issued a memo directing school systems to use federal Covid-19 stimulus funding to continue to pay principals at their existing salaries through December 2023.

A provision in the 2022 state budget had mandated that N.C. public school systems calculate their principals’ pay based on one year of student academic performance data, as opposed to a previous practice of using three years’ of performance data.   Truitt later determined that the change would result in dramatic pay cuts for some principals and directed school systems to use federal Covid stimulus relief funding to continue paying principals at their existing levels, based on an August 24, 2022 press release issued by the State Department of Public Instruction (DPI).

However, for his part, Butler suggested that the “hold harmless” method of calculating principals’ pay has been in effect in ABSS for much longer.

“Simply put,” Butler told the board, “if a principal did not earn the performance numbers in the past, the powers that be agreed to pay that anyway out of [county funding]…Because it is a bonus based on performance, the state said we’re not going to pay you.”

 

ABSS would pay unlicensed teachers at same rate as subs

The second part of “Option One” also calls for ending an existing practice of paying unlicensed teachers (i.e., “lateral entry teachers,” often in the process of obtaining state teaching licensure) at the same rate as licensed teachers.

Instead, unlicensed teachers would be paid at the same daily rates that substitute teachers receive. No exact dollar amount was given Tuesday for how much that might save, although school board members were told that ABSS currently has about 56 lateral entry teachers who are being paid at the same rates as licensed teachers.

“The state will not pay for that unless they’re licensed,” deputy superintendent Lowell Rogers told the board, adding that ABSS has since used a portion of its county current expense funding to pay unlicensed teachers the same salaries that licensed teachers receive.  “We want to place these [teacher licensure] candidates on the substitute teacher scale,” he elaborated.  “Then, once they do get licensure, we would place them on the state scale, and [they] would be paid with state funds.”

School board members had voted twice in August 2021 to use a portion of the school system’s federal Covid stimulus relief funding to raise pay for substitute teachers to $130 per day for certified subs and $115 per day for noncertified substitutes, for a total average annual cost of $2.8 million following the increase in daily pay for subs.

 

Specialty program cuts

The first option also calls for ending three specialty programs (A+ Arts and the Leader in Me at the elementary school level and dual language programs at the middle school level), which would save an estimated $78,300 per year.

The Splash (i.e., Spanish immersion) program that has been offered since around 2013-14 at six elementary schools would remain in place, under the revised financial reduction plan that board members heard Tuesday.

The Leader in Me program started around the 2012-13 school year and is currently offered at Andrews, Hillcrest, Newlin, and South Mebane elementary schools.  Ending that program would save approximately $63,300 per year, based on figures that the deputy superintendent presented Tuesday.

The A+ Arts program started around 2015-16 and is currently offered at Garrett, North Graham, and Sylvan elementary schools.  Ending that program is estimated to save $15,000 per year.

Both programs were described Tuesday as “subscriptions” to instructional materials that ABSS officials suggested would not be renewed.

A school currently known as a “Leader in Me” school could instead be “identified as a leadership school,” Rogers explained, adding, “arts integration could continue.”

Under option one, ABSS would also eliminate 23 vacant positions, which the school system’s administrators estimate would approximately $1.6 million per year.

“There is not actual budget impact,” school board member Dan Ingle pointed out Tuesday afternoon, “because these people aren’t there…These are basically lapsed salaries.  Why do we even need to do this? Why not leave them, freeze them, and talk about it when we get into the next budget?  These are things we can discuss at greater measure in a few weeks when we get into our budget process.  If there’s nobody working that job, that money’s not coming out of our budget, correct?”

ABSS chief finance officer Kim McVey acknowledged that eliminating vacant jobs would have no impact on the budget, or the $3.2 million deficit, for the current fiscal year.  “They’re not here, so they’re currently not on our payroll,” she confirmed for the board.

[Story continues below chart on RIF options.]

 

Option two: Reduced months of employment

The second option, estimated to save $181,071 per year, calls for reducing months of employment for 20 positions, which are currently filled and include: five assistant principals; five high school counselors; four Exceptional Children’s and student services employees; two online facilitators; four lead EC employees; and a student services coordinator.

If approved by the school board, the reduced months of employment would take effect this month and next, the deputy superintendent said.

 

Option three: Job cuts

The third option calls for the potential elimination of 19.5 existing positions, which are currently filled and include: six assistant principals; 10 dual language instructors; two teachers at the Alamance Virtual School (who could possibly be reassigned to other elementary schools); 1.5 elementary “elective” teachers; and six part-time middle school guidance counselor office workers.

Those jobs would be eliminated this month, in March, and over the summer, Rogers said.

School board member Ryan Bowden asked the deputy superintendent to explain why these reductions are being recommended in the middle of the fiscal year.

“We need to do something in order to make it through to the end of June,” Rogers responded, “and so that’s why we’re bringing the recommendations.”

“What measures have y’all talked about from a safety standpoint?” school board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves asked.

“I’m a big believer, personally, in adults being present,” Rogers, the deputy superintendent, responded.  “Being visible goes a long way with building relationships.  We are very fortunate with having [school resource officers] in each of our schools.  We are not ignoring the safety factor [but are looking at how to align the number of staff with students enrolled at each school].”  Rogers said he had also conferred with ABSs principals about the potential reduction in the number of assistant principals and other positions.

“They’re not going into this blind,” Rogers told the board Tuesday.  “After the county commissioners gave us the $250,000, I contacted each one of [the principals] to let them know, ‘We are pressing pause.’ But because of financial reasons, we are having to look at our options.”

Ingle, however, pressed the administration about why they asked state and county officials for help before the funding hole got so deep.

“Some things we could have already shared with them, and maybe received some help instead of letting it pile up and pile up and pile up,” a visibly irritated Ingle told the superintendent and his deputies.  “Then all of a sudden, you’ve got this amount of money.  When I was a police chief, if I was getting close [to going over budget] I could go before the town council; if you needed a budget amendment, you could get it.  We owe it to these employees.”

Butler responded, “I cannot hit rewind.  If this board would like us to, we can get on the county commissioners’ agenda.”  He added that school board members could weigh the three options and offer their own suggestions for what they think should be cut.

“Then that lowers the number that we might have to go in front of the county commissioners and ask for help,” the superintendent said.  “If I need to go in front of the commissioners, I need your direction to do that.”

Ellington-Graves responded that she first wants to make sure ABSS has exhausted all of its resources, to include the possibility of using federal Covid stimulus relief funding, to close the projected budget deficit.  “I want to find anything we can do to save our people.”

“What I don’t want,” Ingle interjected, “is to cut personnel or programs before the end of this year.  I think it sends a bad message.”

 

Continuing uncertainty around allowable uses for Covid stimulus funding

School board members later asked the superintendent to contact DPI to determine whether ABSS is allowed to use any of the remaining $8.4 million in federal Covid stimulus funding to cover its payroll costs.

Rogers, the deputy superintendent, had told school board members earlier Tuesday afternoon that the remaining $8.4 million in federal Covid stimulus relief funding that ABSS received – through the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER III) portion of the third Covid stimulus package passed by Congress in March 2021 – aren’t allowed to be used to offset a potential RIF under federal regulations.  (See accompanying chart.)  The ESSER III funds expire September 30, 2024.

“If you’re wrong, I believe you have to pay it back,” Butler warned Tuesday.

Another factor, ABSS chief academic officer Revonda Johnson recalled much later in Tuesday’s discussion, is that ESSER funds had been used to open and staff the Alamance Virtual School (housed at the former Sellars-Gunn Education Center in Burlington) at the start of the 2021-22 school year.

“We did originally use it for some staffing purposes,” Johnson told the board.  “What’s left is what we’re mandated to use for learning loss…This is a federal mandate.”

Over the past three years, ABSS has expanded its academic offerings – by adding “Saturday School,” a high school evening academy, and summer school – in order to help students who fell behind academically during online instruction at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

Part of the third option would include eliminating grades four and five at the virtual school.  School officials had previously eliminated the pre-Kindergarten through third grade at the virtual school at the beginning of the school year.

Meanwhile, enrollment at the Alamance Virtual School has continued to dwindle.

During its first year of operation, in the 2021-22 school year, there were a total of 479 students enrolled in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade as of the end of the first month of school, according to ABSS enrollment data.

Now in its third year of operation, the virtual school had a total of 236 students enrolled in grades four through 12 at the end of the first month of school, according to ABSS.  Of those, 36 students were enrolled in the fourth and fifth grades, which would no longer be offered at the virtual school, starting with the upcoming 2024-25 school year, based on the information presented Tuesday.

The CFO later told the board that the staff will continue to review purchase orders.  “There are open orders out there that hold money,” McVey explained.  “An example is athletic trainers,” she said, referring to the $514,965 that had been included in this year’s budget to hire seven high school athletic trainers.

School board members were told late last month that only three of the seven high school athletic trainer positions have been filled.

McVey indicated this week that the approximately $294,265 in county funding still on hand for that line item could be used for other expenses, along with another total of about $400,000 in what she termed “indirect costs” for federal programs.

“You just found $1 million, is what you’re saying?” asked school board member Chuck Marsh.

School board members are scheduled to resume their discussion about the financial reduction plan at their next meeting on February 26.

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