Shrinking dollars = belt tightening

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By Bryan Marshall

The state’s budget woes have trickled down to Williamstown Independent Schools as 13 faculty and staff members recently received non-renewal letters for next school year.

Superintendent Charles Ed Wilson gave “pink slips” to 10 certified non-renewal letters and three classified non-renewal letters by the May 15 deadline.

“We want as many of the positions to be reinstated as possible,” Wilson said. “Most of these individuals are first-year certified teachers. The overriding reason is the uncertainty of the budget. We hope to be able to ask the board to reinstate some positions while I’m still superintendent in June. After that, Ms. (Sally) Skinner in July will do her best to analyze the budget and the number of students we have in the programs, such as special needs.”

A total of 4.8 positions — 2.3 in the elementary school and 2.5 in the middle and high school — have been cut for next year.

Of the faculty and staff who received non-renewal letters, two certified and two classified positions were in special education.

Special education staffing is based on the number of students in the program district-wide.

Wilson said the district is unsure until later in the summer how many special education students there will be.

While some districts send non-renewal letters to all non-tenured faculty and staff, Wilson said he tried to only send letters to target areas.

“In many districts, they have an operational culture, especially in the larger ones, where it’s common practice that these letters go out,” said Skinner, who will take over as superintendent July 1. “In our situation, it’s very uncommon up until the last few years because we were growing and adding, not subtracting.”

In the past six years, Wilson said Williamstown Schools has seen enrollment growth slow down.

The six years prior, the district grew and staff was added, he said.

With staff cuts, concerns about a growing student-to-teacher ratio were discussed at the May school board meeting.

First grade teacher Donna Jones said some classes were at or above the cap size of 24 students, not allowing teachers adequate time with individual students.

“I really wish you could come in and see the children we serve everyday in our classroom,” she said. “They need a whole lot more than I’m able to give right now with 23 kids in my class. Some of those kids aren’t at grade level. They’re barely close to it. I’ve given all I’ve got and more.

“It’s always been our goal to have every child where they need to be,” Jones said. “But, it’s gotten more difficult as aides have disappeared, more responsibilities come on. These little guys who struggle could use a teacher one-on-one, much less putting three or four more kids in the class.”

Williamstown Elementary Principal David Poer explained to the board that the lower the teacher-student ratio you have, the better teachers can do with students.

“Right now, even if we get one position back, we’re going to be at cap in first grade and second grade,” he said. “We’ll start the year out with 24 kids in each one of those classes. If anybody moves into the district, those classes will be above cap.”

Poer said he would like to start with around 20 or 21 students in those grades to allow for potential growth.

Jones said teachers understand the crisis the country and schools are in, but she said they are only asking to maintain their current staffing.

She also said that non-renewal letters handed out to new teachers are pushing quality educators away from the district.

“What good first-year teacher wants to come to a school that they know next year they’re going to get pink slipped?” Jones said. “You might get hired back, but people can’t build their lives on that.”

In their May meeting, the Williamstown School Board approved a 2009-10 tentative budget of $8.5 million.

The expenditures listed around $325,000 less for classified and certified salaries, but an increase of $1,722 in site-based allotments.

Wilson said the district received a $70,000 reduction in state grant funds for professional development, extended school services, textbooks, gifted education and safe school funds.

The budget also included a one percent mandatory raise for all certified and classified staff.

While he said he wants everyone to prosper financially, board member Chris Lawrence said he is not sure why the state is still requiring a mandated raise during dire economic times.

“I would rather they hold people’s salaries stable than take a chance on people losing their jobs,” he said. “That’s the way businesses are working now. I’m kind of shocked that it has never been on the radar.”

Not funding the raises possibly could have helped save a couple of positions from being cut, Lawrence said.

An e-mail sent in early May to all superintendents from Elaine Farris, interim commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Education, advised districts to be cautious when budgeting for next school year.

“We are aware that these are difficult times, that you face significant potential cuts in programs and staffing and that a tight timeline exists for making personnel decisions,” she wrote. “Under the circumstances, we can only advise that you take as conservative a position as is necessary in making staffing and other budget decisions.”

Wilson noted that the district did save more than $90,000 by eliminating the assistant superintendent position left vacant after Skinner was selected as superintendent.

The district also will keep a KDE-recommended 5 percent contingency fund of $425,000 for next year.

“Our finances have been strong in Williamstown long before I came here,” Wilson said. “We normally keep a 4 or 5 percent reserve. We have a 5 percent reserve this year.”

While much is still to be decided in the next couple months, Wilson said he believes most of the positions that received non-renewal letters will come back.

However, he also added the uncertainty of the economy and the money the district will receive from the state.

“In the best of circumstances, building and developing a school budget is a guess,” Wilson said. “It’s a huge projection.”