Calhoun schools trying to slash deficit, but employees protest

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By Ryan Quinn

The Charleston Gazette

The Calhoun County school district’s deficit at the end of last fiscal year surpassed $1.8 million, exceeding one-fifth of its annual operating budget, but recent drastic efforts to reduce it have received opposition from employees.

Superintendent Tim Woodward, who joined the district in March, said that despite losing $350,000 annually in state funding over the past several years due to declining enrollment – Calhoun dropped from 1,137 students in 2011-12 to 1,066 this school year – the district hadn’t cut spending since 2005.

“I didn’t see any attempts to save costs – across the board,” Woodward said.

By reducing the number of annual days many employees are paid for, eliminating $600 yearly supplements all workers used to receive and other measures, Woodward said he’s put the district in a position to save $600,000 this fiscal year. He said the day reductions save $3,000-$6,000 in salary and benefits costs per employee.

But the superintendent said a union representing local school service personnel, like bus drivers and secretaries, has filed a grievance against the Calhoun school board over the cuts it approved, arguing the days were reduced after the proper period in which employee contracts are set.

The grievance is now at the final level before it can be appealed to the court system, but Woodward said he can’t blame the workers for filing it.

“They were trying to get their money back,” he said.

Joe Panetta, chief operations officer for the West Virginia Department of Education, spoke to the state school board Thursday about Calhoun and the three other counties – Clay, Grant and Randolph – that had unreserved fund balance deficits at the end of the 2013-14 fiscal year. The board unanimously approved the counties’ plans to get their balances out of the red.

“Wow, that’s scary,” board member Bill White said of the financial issues for Calhoun, where the deficit grew 85 percent from fiscal year 2012-13 to 2013-14. Calhoun has seen a growing deficit for four consecutive years, the longest streak of all 55 West Virginia counties.

Grant’s deficit was at about $176,000 last fiscal year, up from $145,000 the year prior; Randolph’s was at $309,000, down from $998,000; and Clay’s was at $236,000, down from $1.3 million.

The four deficit districts, along with others that Panetta said aren’t in the red but are quickly heading toward it, are on the department’s “watch list.” Department officials give extra scrutiny to the counties on the list, and Panetta said it requests corrective action plans from any county that shows a year-end deficit.

The state school board has taken over financially burdened counties in the past, temporarily removing power from their local school boards.

Woodward said he roughly estimates it’ll take five years to get Calhoun out of its deficit without voters there passing an excess levy. He said a levy that would have provided $722,000 annually for the next half decade failed by 100 votes in May and about 500-600 votes in November. He said voters seem to lack trust in the school district, and he doesn’t think it’d be wise to fund another levy election until that trust is restored over a few years.

“It creates a division in your community,” he said of levy elections, “and I want that division closed.”

So far, the district has laid out a 3-year corrective action plan to fix the issues. Several current and future cost-saving measures will likely be controversial.

This school year, the district rearranged bus routes to eliminate seven contract bus drivers, making some students walk farther to bus stops but saving about $50,000 annually. It also put off buying buses.

Next school year, Woodward said he plans to reduce or eliminate pay for coaches and other leaders of extracurricular activities. The district will also move baseball and football games from nights – when it costs about $100 an hour to turn field lights on – to daytime on Saturdays.

Woodward said he also wants to eliminate all positions in the central school district office and restructure it, removing the need for at least one supervisor and creating an uncertain future for the current employees, who could apply to the newly created positions if qualified or use any seniority to take the positions of workers like principals and secretaries elsewhere in the school district.

By the third year, Woodward said he hopes Calhoun will be able to enter into service sharing agreements with other counties, allowing it to reduce its staff. But he believes state law currently inhibits such sharing arrangements, which state school board members have expressed support for.

“By the third year, I hope we have the precedent and the law to be able to do it,” the superintendent said. He said he doesn’t want to cut the number of teachers.

Panetta said the department has been “aggressively” monitoring Calhoun’s budget, and feels confident the district is on the right track.