Families urge IRSD not to cut extracurricular pay

Date Published: 
March 31, 2017

Indian River School District officials have said from the beginning of recent financial concerns that budget cuts are needed. The recently-passed current-expense referendum, which will bring in an additional $7.35 million annually in local property taxes, simply prevented the inevitable budget cuts from being more severe.

In recent weeks, as part of the budget-trimming process, the board asked district staff for recommendations on ways to save local dollars. But a week later, at the March 27 Board of Education meeting, some families suggested IRSD go back to the drawing board.

In reality, the IRSD is still at the drawing board. The first set of suggestions were just proposals for the board to consider.

But IRSD families are already rejecting a proposal that would remove pay for most non-athletic extracurricular coaches and advisors. By eliminating $225,000 in Nonathletic Extra Pay for Extra Responsibilities (EPER), student clubs would have to rely heavily on advisors willing to work after school on a volunteer basis. Meanwhile, the IRSD could save $185,000 by reducing paid athletic staff to four coaches for football and two for sports that already have two, plus one for other teams.

“There haven’t been any decisions made. … These were proposals. It wasn’t a final thing,” newly appointed IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele said. “In realistic terms, the board’s got to look at it.”

Lisa Bird, parent of a band student in the district, brought to the March 27 meeting a petition of 124 names opposing cuts to EPER.

“Cutting this benefit penalizes our non-athletic school employees who make our schools a well-rounded learning environment,” and the district would risk losing those good teachers to other districts, Bird said.

IRSD could also lose students. Sophomore, student council leader and future music major Kathleen Carter warned that she would consider leaving if IR High School lost its many musical opportunities — jazz band, clarinet choir, a capella, baroque ensemble and more.

“I, for one, fell in love with Indian River the moment I stepped on the marching-band field,” said Carter. “Almost every student from SDSA decided to attend [Sussex Technical High School]. Indian River was essentially my back-up plan if I did not get in to Tech.”

Band is both an academic subject in the curriculum and a team sport, Carter said.

“Marching band is a sport for those who can’t play sports,” said student Vanessa Reyes, reading a letter from her classmate.

As mayor of Dagsboro, Brian Baull understands the challenges of juggling a budget, employees and taxpayer expectations for crucial services. As the six-year president of the IRHS Band Boosters, he said a music teacher’s extra time is just as valuable as that of a football coach.

“This is not to put one against the other, but you have teachers on the football staff who will also get paid a stipend for their coaching. And you’re asking [IRHS band conductor] Mr. [Nathan] Mohler to be in the stands with the band, 120-plus playing members for the entire season — not to mention parades and county band and state band — and you’re basically telling him, ‘It’s part of your job.’

“You’re sending a message … to any other teacher who would normally submit an EPER pay request … ‘We do appreciate you taking on extra responsibility, but just not enough to give you extra pay,’” Baull said.

A Sussex Central High School student also advocated for the Future Farmers of America program. However, districts are already required to pay teachers extra for academic programs that include extracurriculars, including FFA, Business Professionals of America and Future Teachers of America.

An IRHS student asked that public safety officers not be cut, since, they said, the high school feels safer with a constable and school resource officer.

Schools frustrated by state cuts

In education, most expenses are paid through a combination of local, state and federal money. Local property taxes can be spent at the districts’ discretion, while state and federal taxes must be used for specific purposes.

IRSD Board Member James “Jim” Fritz said he appreciated people’s concerns, but he asked people to take those concerns higher up the food chain.

“I would urge you to take the same energy and contact all your state legislators, who are the ones that are deciding to cut education in the state of Delaware. All the districts are going to have to … make the tough decisions. They’re the ones withholding the money or stopping the money we need to operate.”

“The State has treated us bad,” said Steele, adding that he personally felt the State had made poor decisions and is placing the burden of cost cuts upon schools and other agencies.

“The figures of the proposed government cuts is disheartening,” Steele said. “About $3.5 million.”

Gov. John Carney’s proposed $15 million discretionary cut for schools was expected, resulting in a $1.2 million loss for the IRSD. But the State has also proposed cutting $2.2 million for education sustainment, which usually pays IRSD salaries through the tight summer months, before autumn taxes arrive.

The IRSD may also lose 5 percent in transportation costs, equaling $300,000, and energy funds worth $38,000.

Across the state, schools may not know where they stand until the Delaware General Assembly approves the budget, likely on June 30.

Spreading the pain at IRSD

The district’s administration isn’t exempt from the cuts. In fact, the IRSD has been operating for years with fewer administrative staff than it’s entitled to, based on student population. But they rejected some state funds in order to save money on the required local match.

“If we’re gone make cuts, people are going to want to see it here,” Steele said of the district’s central office, “and I think that’s a very fair thing.”

The fact that the budget discussion hasn’t included much about administrative cuts has resulted in some criticism, with the perception that administrative budget isn’t also on the chopping block. But such discussions must occur only in the IRSD board’s executive session, because each administrator’s contract isnegotiated individually (versus teacher salaries, which are negotiated broadly with the union). Employee names and salaries may not be discussed publicly, unless that person requests it.

Steele said he has some budget ideas that may raise eyebrows, but he said it’s necessary to think outside the box.

“We’re going to take our time and make smart decisions,” he said.

Although the State offers school districts a property-tax match that doesn’t require referendum, Steele said he doesn’t like the idea of using that, especially after another referendum just finished.

The school board will continue discussion of the budget at a special April 10 meeting, at 7 p.m. at Sussex Central High School, which is replacing the normally scheduled committee meetings. However, most of the meeting is expected to occur behind closed doors, since it will likely involve mostly individual positions and salaries.