Rockwood gives preview of potential budget cuts
By: Carol Enright
It was a packed house at the Rockwood Board of Education meeting on Dec. 6. Some 275-300 teachers, plus a couple dozen district patrons, crowded the Crestview Middle School cafeteria. They were all there to hear about the proposed budget for the 2013-2014 school year and the inevitable cuts that will be necessary to make up a $5.1 million deficit and fund a myriad of programs including professional development and the technology needed to meet a 2014-15 deadline to introduce Missouri’s Common Core State Standards.
Before presenting the budget proposal, which Board President Janet Strate repeatedly pointed out was still in draft form, Rockwood’s Chief Financial Officer Tim Rooney framed it in the context of the $22 million in cuts the district has made since 2008.
Rooney said “… it really would be hard to make a case that the district needs to do much more belt tightening.”
The Board has a policy to end the fiscal year with an operating fund balance that is between 18 percent and 22 percent of budgeted operating expenditures. Rooney said the district is anticipating an ending balance for 2012-2013 that is 25.8 percent of budgeted operating expenditures, or $16.2 million above the Board’s 18 percent target balance. He explained that while the district could avoid cuts by simply drawing from these reserves, without a bond issue or tax increase, these reserves would dry up in a couple of years.
The buzz in the crowd grew audible as Rooney broached the topic of staff reductions. Rooney said staff cuts would be achieved through attrition and not rehiring teachers on one-year contracts – at least through the first two years.
If the district could not achieve enough cuts through attrition, layoffs could be necessary in the 2014-2015 school year. An immediate consequence of these staff cuts would be increased class sizes in a district which, at an average of 19 students per class, has one of the highest class sizes in the area.
The proposed budget showed $257,000 in cuts at the administrative level, but Suzanne Dotta, president of the Rockwood National Education Association teacher’s union, said she saw too many cuts “happening at the building level where kids reside, where kids show up every day.”
“I do not see there’s a great deal of cutting at the central services level (administration) where the kids are not necessarily in place.”
Reading from a prepared statement, Dotta shared her reaction to the proposed budget: “The cuts recommended by Dr. Borchers tonight are a disservice to the students of Rockwood. This is a great district because of the quality people who work directly with children in our schools every day. Eliminating teaching jobs, raising class sizes, cutting secretaries and custodians to fund programs and protect excessive fund balances is not in the best interest of kids.”
When asked what she thought would be a viable solution to addressing the needs of the district given its current financial straits, Dotta said using the fund balance “has to be a piece of the discussion, at least in the short term.”
Board Director Steve Smith received a spontaneous outburst of applause when he expressed his support of teachers, particularly those whose one-year contracts would not be renewed under the proposed budget. Smith said teachers with one-year contracts should be treated no differently than tenured teachers.
“I understand that they’re easier to deal with, if you will, but that doesn’t make it appropriate nor does it make it something that we want to move forward with,” Smith said.
Dotta said that removing any teacher from schools hurts kids.
“Every time you take somebody out of the system, the number of kids in the system did not change. So, now, a fewer number of staff are meeting the needs of the same number of students, which either means there’s greater work on the staff that’s left or those needs are not met to the degree that they were prior to the cuts,” Dotta said.
Board Director Bill Brown called making budget cuts “one of the most distasteful things I’ve been placed in.”
“We’re talking about people’s lives,” he said.
But Brown promised the crowd that every Board member was taking the job seriously and would “solve this problem.”
“We’re going to do it in a way that’s going to minimize the impact on the students, minimize the impact on people – teachers, administrators, taxpayers,” Brown said.
Board Director Sherri Rogers voiced her concern about a proposed cut of the kindergarten gifted program at the Center for Creative Learning.
Strate said the Board would be discussing each of the proposed cuts over several meetings and asking, “Can we live with it collectively or not?”
“The key is that we all understand the consequences of these decisions. They will impact students. They will impact our staff,” said Strate.
Smith questioned why the $16.2 million in fund balances (the amount that is in excess of the Board’s 18 percent target reserves) couldn’t be used to cover the proposed expenditures and cuts.
Board Director Keith Kinder said he found it “a little strange” to spend money on items such as professional development and summer school while cutting teachers “over and above what we lose through declining enrollment.”
The Board does not need to approve a final budget until June, as the fiscal year begins July 1. But for practical purposes it will be motivated to get a budget in place early next year, so that decisions on hiring and programs can be made for the next school year.
The results of the district’s community engagement process, Picture Rockwood, will also impact budget decisions. The two final “pictures” of Rockwood’s future, which can be found on the district’s website, recommend a tax increase and one recommends a bond issue. The final recommendation on which “picture” to adopt will be presented to the Board on January 10.
Rockwood videotaped the budget discussion and it is available for the public to view, along with supporting documents, at rockwood.k12.mo.us.