by Max Brantley
Jerry Guess, named to lead the district after the state took it over eight months ago, said, without changes, the district would finish in the red more than $13 million next school year. He's already identified $6.6 million in savings, the majority from a reduction in force of 77 employees, most of which he hopes to achieve by attrition, and by continuing to leave unfilled positions vacant. There are also scheduled savings in insurance, from a bell schedule change and a new copier contract, among others.
But, he said he'd begin negotiations tomorrow with the teacher and non-certified employee unions to produce $7 million more in savings. He'll ask them to reopen their contracts. The savings would come from givebacks in the some $16 million paid in benefits in excess of minimums required by state law. Potential changes include having an unpaid hour of lunch or break supervisory duty each week, loss of enhanced payment for in-district development courses and reductions in paid leave time.
Guess said his first objective will be to convince the unions the situation is "critical" and "fatal if not corrected." He said he'd move in a serious and non-combative way. But he added, "I do have a plan for unilateral implementation of the district's last, best and final offer."
He said past administrators had failed in oversight responsibility in granting more than the district could afford.
Guess said coaches would be among the areas cut, in response to a question from Dr. Ben Mays, a long-time critic of over-emphasis on athletics in Arkansas schools. Mays pressed on, wondering how as a philosophical matter the state could justify athletic spending, not required in the state funding formula, in a fiscally distressed district. District officials said local property tax, in excess of state funding, provides leeway for athletic and other spending. Mays wondered whether districts should go to voters for millages specifically devoted to athletics.
Others noted that the discussion didn't touch substantially on the city's significant facility needs.
Though the state board today put the district, without objection from its leaders, on a higher level of state fiscal distress, Guess said there was no cause for parents to be alarmed about quality of education, though he acknowledged it was "paradoxical" to talk of a crisis while saying there was nothing for parents to be worried about.