IRSD board rescinds calendar

Two big issues, one big Indian River School District School Board meeting.
Concerned residents filled the Frankford Elementary cafeteria on April 26, as School Board members rescinded the previously agreed upon calendar for 2005-2006 and reviewed a list of possible areas for budget cuts.

Jane Brock (education employees’ union rep for secretaries) asked the board to reconsider the 2005-2006 calendar. She said the Spring/Easter break was one of the benefits that made her want to work for the district.

According to Brock, the teacher’s union had tried to protect the vacation in wording during several contract negotiations. In the end they’d agreed, she said, that as long as the state didn’t intervene, the district wouldn’t take Spring/Easter break away from the secretaries. (Coincidentally, the School Board meeting happened to fall on Secretaries Day).

Last month, the board adopted a calendar slimming that vacation to four days, in an effort to break earlier for the summer. However, they rescinded that decision on April 26, in near unanimity (Board Member M. Elaine McCabe cast the sole opposing vote).

The 2005-2006 calendar will mirror this year’s, running from Sept. 6 (the day after Labor Day) to June 13, with Spring/Easter break running from April 14 to 23.

Indian River Education Association (education employees’ union) President Darlene Johnson spoke later in the meeting, saying she appreciated the withdrawal of the previous calendar – 89 percent of union members wanted the traditional Easter Break, she said.

Board President Harvey Walls moved to appoint Johnson and Board Member Charles Bireley to a committee tasked with nailing down exactly what it was the district wanted in a calendar.

Budget cuts, and possibly, actual downsizing were at least as hot a topic that night. District employees recently informed there won’t be enough money to continue funding their positions next year, and parents and students citing the value and importance of those positions, filed to the podium.

Bobby Eyre, from the behavior management team at Selbyville Middle School (SMS) – “I should say, the former behavior management team,” he added – objected to the way the district declined to renew their services.

“Last week, we were notified our positions had been terminated due to budget cuts, but then we were told we could reapply – but for less pay,” Eyre said. “What is that?”

He stood by the team’s positive influence in the school, and asked why the board hadn’t done an across the board pay cut, for all positions, instead.

Lori Parker, from the same team, said she and the others had been successful at isolating disruptive students and investigating fights, weapons, drugs and incidents on the busses, creating a safe learning environment.

According to Parker, discipline and test scores go hand and hand, and “We’re all replaceable – however, the team is not,” she said.

Rebecca Mais, a parent with a background in counseling, stepped to the podium “on behalf of our peer mediators and intervention folks.

“This is not an expendable position,” she said. Nipping inappropriate behaviors in the bud was essential, she said, and life skills (conflict resolution, communication) were the first thing she looked for as an employer.

“It would be devastating to see these programs disappear,” Mais said. “Please look for other places to cut.”

Melissa Berzins, a student at SMS, stood by the value of the peer mediation program. “If this is abolished, students won’t have anywhere to turn, before they turn to violence,” she said. Berzins said the program was also a great encouragement to leadership and service.

Later in the meeting, board members reemphasized hopes to hire the employees “reduced in force” next year. However, they did unanimously adopt the list of potential areas for budget reduction, and the option of declining to rehire, or rehiring at lower pay, remained part of that list.

A district financial position report, dated April 21, lists available funds at $5.97 million, through June 30. Unfortunately, personnel costs and operating obligations (the bills) outstanding through June 30 total $6.26 million.

In other words, the district has slipped into the red by $288,000. Any time there isn’t enough money in available funds to cover one month’s salary for all the employees ($1.37 million), the district “shall indicate what steps it plans to take to assure that such a minimum balance will be in place in the subsequent fiscal year (Delaware Code, cited in the report).”

Something has to give, and Finance Director Patrick Miller outlined some of the options.

Reducing of operating expenses.

Borrowing from major capital construction projects.

Litigating, possibly, to recover local funds lost – estimated at $2 million – when the mechanical contractor at Sussex Central went belly-up.

Discontinuing education tax relief and senior citizen discounts.

Eliminating tax relief and senior citizen discounts would bring in more than $1 million.

As noted in public comment, the behavior management team, including peer mediator facilitators and hall monitors, has already been reduced in force.

However, there is still money in the budget for “school climate,” and that money can’t be spent elsewhere. District Superintendent Lois Hobbs said the School Resource Officers (SROs) were top priority, and they would definitely be reassigning them – and the others, if they could.

The JROTC program is feeling the squeeze. Miller said it had been placed on probationary status at Sussex Central Senior High School and may be discontinued next year.

Between Indian River High School and Sussex Central, more than $250,000 in local funds goes toward those programs, he said.

Miller said there was presently a vacant secretary position, and that could remain vacant. He said the position was funded entirely out of local funds – between salary, employment costs, health insurance and other benefits, leaving the position open would free up $117,000. Locally funded nurses might not be replaced as they retire or move on to other jobs, either.

An administrative director position, and an administrator for math/science position, both currently vacant at district headquarters, could be eliminated altogether.

As Walls emphasized, there was no one reason why the district was having these problems. Yes, the situation with the mechanical contractor was a factor, but the district had suffered from local funds draining back to the state, and discontinued federal funding, were factors as well, he said.

According to Miller, Gov. Ruth Ann Minner’s giveback program takes $500,000 every year. There was an agreement to take the giveback off the table, he said, and then take a similar amount away from energy funding instead.

Miller said the state had retreated to 1991 funding levels for energy and instructional supplies, and equalization funding continued to decline for the wealthier Sussex districts (Indian River, Cape Henlopen).

While the governor’s office had sited a 2 percent increase in education funding, he said that was payroll only – in all other areas, funding had actually decreased, by 18 to 20 percent. Miller said the district would receive $159,000 less this year than it received last year.

However, Sen. George H. Bunting (20th District) said he’d received a different version from the state budget controller, blaming the state for district woes was unfair, and the numbers skewed. Bunting also noted state authorization for a new internal taxing mechanism, district borrowing from construction funds and more than $100,000 in street aid for parking lots.

In construction, EDiS President Ted Dwyer said a contractor had begged out of his bid at East Millsboro Elementary, claiming he’d made a mistake. That bid packet was on budget — with the change, it will be over by $500,000.

The bid packet for renovations at Lord Baltimore Elementary came in $1.6 million over budget.

Building and Grounds Committee Members recommended the board reject the packet, but Board Member Charles Bireley said they had made the high schools their highest priority, and they needed to do the same for the rest of the projects in the pipeline.

“We’ve already had two referendums to fund this,” Bireley said. They’d just have to scrimp and save, and find the money somewhere, he said.

If they’d decided to break up the packet and modified the bidding strategy, Dwyer said they would have no shot at completing work at Lord Baltimore before 2006.

The board voted unanimously to accept the bid, and Bireley voiced a determination not to back away from the other projects, either.