Todd, Key grade sup’t., BoE majority with fiscal ‘F’
‘We should have made the tough decisions to cut more, close more, do more months ago ... The biggest cost savings can be realized by closing under-utilized schools ... The board did not follow the community imperative. We are now reduced to fiscal crisis management.’ — Bob Todd & Marion Key
Fayette County Board of Education members Bob Todd and Marion Key have drawn a line in the sand. In a letter to the editor in this week’s edition, the two board members said budget cuts during the past two years amounted to “too little, too late” and that deep, strategic cuts for next year must be made to protect the school system.
Todd and Key said the letter is in response to community questions about their having voted against the adoption of the school system’s 2012-2013 budget in June. It was a budget that came with $177 million in expenses and $163 million in revenues and used nearly all of the school system’s remaining $15 million fund balance to balance it. The budget was adopted on a 3-2 vote, with board members Terri Smith, Janet Smola and Chairman Leonard Presberg in favor and Key and Todd opposed.
The budget adoption left approximately $800,000 in the projected fund balance as of June 30, 2013. Key and Todd in the letter noted that a total of $26 million in fund balance has been used to balance the budgets in the past two years. Now with essentially nothing left to fall back on for next year the school board is faced with millions in additional cuts, they said.
“Due to a significant financial crisis, the FCBoE is at a crucial point — a point where tough decisions must be made to ensure the fiscal viability of our education system. Unfortunately, this year’s budget — for the second year in a row — pulls millions of dollars from the system’s financial reserves. This is akin to paying expected monthly household bills with savings intended for a rainy day,” the letter said.
“The glaring question is, why is this being done for the second year? The answer is that the new superintendent(Jeff Bearden) came on board in January of 2011 and proposed using $11 million of reserves with the understanding that a plan to cut expenses and reduce this use of reserves would be presented to the board in the fall. This never happened.”
A part of the resolution to offset falling local property tax dollars and falling state revenues from decreasing student enrollment should come with the closure of some of the school system’s schools, Key and Todd suggested. Fayette has opened five new schools since 2002. Yet today the enrollment level, which is projected to fall through 2021, is back to what it was in 2001.
“The reality is that we are a year behind in our decision-making — we should have made the tough decisions to cut more, close more, do more months ago,” the letter said. “The biggest cost savings can be realized by closing under-utilized schools. The community understands this. In the 2011 community survey, the respondents preferred closing schools to cutting programs and services to students, but the board did not follow the community imperative. We are now reduced to fiscal crisis management.”
The community survey referenced by Key and Todd was taken by the school system early last fall. Included in the survey was the idea of closing one unnamed middle school and two unnamed elementary schools.
The idea of closing the middle school had the agreement of 35.9 percent of respondents while 27.3 percent disagreed. Of those unsure, 21.9 percent leaned toward closure while 14.9 percent likely preferred the school remain open.
Another topic, that of closing two unnamed elementary schools and opening Rivers Elementary, found more agreement than disagreement. Approximately 40 percent of respondents agreed with closing the schools and 19.3 percent were unsure but probably agreed. On the opposite side, 30.6 percent disagreed and 10.3 percent were unsure but probably disagreed.
There were a total of 5,413 responses to the survey, with 21.4 percent being the parent of an elementary student, 16.5 percent being the parent of a middle school student, 17 percent being the parent of a student at a different level and 11.6 percent were community members with no children in the school system. Beyond that, 26.1 percent of respondents were employed by the school system.
Bearden, after the survey and earlier this year, recommended that Fayetteville Intermediate School, Hood Avenue Primary and Fayette Middle School be closed next year and that Rivers Elementary School located northwest of Fayetteville be opened.
All three schools are in Fayetteville, and student numbers at all three are majority black: Fayette Middle at 59.5 percent, Fayetteville Intermediate at 58 percent, and Hood Avenue at 54.8 percent black.
The topic at a recent board meeting ended with Bearden being instructed to return with proposals that would also include the closure of Tyrone Elementary and/or Brooks Elementary schools. Both Tyrone (at 63.4 percent) and Brooks (at 82.2 percent) have predominately white populations.
Todd at the meeting also suggested that Inman Elementary be closed but the idea got no traction.
At Bearden’s recommendation, the school board in June agreed that the process to determine which schools to close would begin in late summer and would be up for a vote in December. The closure of each school would amount to a savings of approximately $800,000.
It was the idea of closing the schools in Brooks and Tyrone that had parents at the school board meeting after the 2011 survey concluded. They took the position, and still do today, that the small schools constitute an integral part of their communities.
Key and Todd agreed, though they also noted the cost of running those schools in the face of falling revenues is financially questionable.
“Overhead costs are similar at every school, regardless of the number of students. Every dollar spent on unneeded overhead costs drain resources from the classroom. To illustrate, the current per pupil cost for overhead operating expenses at Brooks is $2,711. It is $2,312 for Tyrone and would be $1,061 for a consolidated Hood/Fayette complex,” they said.
Todd and Key said the criteria for determining school closures should be capacity, enrollment, the proximity of desk space in nearby schools and, potentially, the physical condition of the school.
Bearden’s initial recommendation to close the two elementary schools and one middle school, all in Fayetteville, and to open Rivers would save $1.6 million. The closures of Brooks and Tyrone would generate another $800,000 each. Beyond that, Key and Todd suggest that closing Inman, consolidating Fayetteville Intermediate and Hood Avenue and not opening Rivers would save a total of $4.8 million.
Even if all those were done the school board will still be faced with millions more in cuts in order to balance the 2013-2014 budget next June.
Though the school system is the largest tax levying entity in the county and receives nearly two-thirds of every local tax dollar collected, Fayette County, like other public school systems, holds the superintendent more like a CEO who makes recommendations that the board either accepts or rejects.
Unlike the operation of city councils or county commissions, school boards — including the Fayette County Board of Education — customarily make motions on voting items based on whether “to accept the superintendent’s recommendation.”
Todd in earlier comments said that, by state law, a school superintendent is responsible to the school board for the successful operation of the school system.
“That’s his one and only responsibility,” Todd said. “It’s the school board’s responsibility through policy to set their expectations for the superintendent to fulfill his or her responsibilities. Under Georgia law a school board is responsible for the operations of the school system, not the superintendent. For years a superintendent was elected in Georgia. That changed in the 1990s, yet school systems operate like the law never changed.”
But Key and Todd in the letter maintain that the school board must assert its responsibility.
“The Fayette County Board of Education is a corporate body which is tasked with being a good steward of the resources entrusted to us by the community. As such, individual board members are responsible for the financial well being of the district,” the letter said. “Board members have the authority to accept, modify and or reject recommendations of the superintendent in financial matters. They may also submit alternate recommendations to the board for consideration. We do not feel that the administration’s last two years of budget preparation, planning, and oversight has allowed board members to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities to the tax-payers of this county. It also further weakens our ability to maintain a financially viable and quality school district.”
Key and Todd in the letter asked for the participation of school system employees and the community in the coming weeks as the discussions to close or consolidate schools is undertaken.