School board approves $2.4M in budget cuts

Date Published: 
April 14, 2017

The Indian River School District is making budget reductions, from administrative positions down to performing arts.

The board of education has begun voting on budget cuts for the 2018 fiscal year. Although the official budget won’t be approved until June, they’ve begun planning.

Superintendent Mark Steele’s three-part proposal includes leaving a number of administrative positions empty, including both assistant superintendent spots.

IRSD can also “cash in” some administrative positions. Most items come from a mix of state and local money. So IRSD saves local money, but gets to keep state money for leaving several job positions empty, including two assistant superintendents, two directors, two supervisors, two assistant principals.

But by also cutting support staff budgets, IRSD saves $1,006,411.

“I said I was going to trim… We’re about down to bare bones,” Steele said this week. “We think that’s a good savings.”

At the central office, the extra work will be spread among the remaining administrators.

“My directors — we’re all having to pick up extra things. Jan [Steele]’s going to pick up technology. The investigative unit goes to Celeste [Hudson]. … I keep Buildings & Grounds,” Steele said. “Those duties kind of got spread.”

Steele also saved the district money by virtue of having fewer years of experience than the district’s last superintendent, so his salary starts on a lower scale.

Programs funding was reduced by $215,178.

Operational/discretionary budget cuts, which were also discussed in March, were amended to only cut $1,414,097.

After parents and student spoke out against cuts to non-athletic Extra Pay for Extra Responsibilities (EPER), the board agreed to reduce that by only $135,000, rather than eliminating the whole $225,000 budget. Advisors for marching band and drama still get EPER pay, as do professional groups required by the curriculum, such as Business Professionals of America.

But IRSD staff did not say which clubs and programs will be impacted by the cuts.

The board made other changes to the instructional budget and operational/discretionary budget cuts they favored in March.

The IRSD can save money in some places by scaling back on some training, asking families to chip in for special academic programs, changing the funding sources or applying for grants.

Some things were completely eliminated, including new athletic uniforms.

Although most of the plans were unanimously approved, Board Members Doug Hudson and Heather Statler voted against the instructional, operations/discretionary and administrative cut packages.

“I was looking for steeper reductions within administration, along with a tiered priority proposal of non-instructional areas. I was disappointed that all programs and services were not evaluated. … No area should have been left out in the discussion. Hence, I could not support the plan,” Statler stated afterwards.

“Cutting instructional components is not my first choice. I understand that the district is facing a very difficult time, and I hope to be able to offer continued guidance on ways to achieve the best outcomes for our students.”

After spring break, the Board of Education’s next regular meeting is Monday, April 24, at 7 p.m. at Sussex Central High School. The board will begin looking at enrollment and staff projections.

Teaching staff were not discussed

The school board made no decisions this week on para-educators or teaching positions for the 2017-2018 school year. By contract, the board has until May 15 to decide and notify staff who might not have their contracts renewed.

But some members of the public had heard about the administration’s idea of eliminating para-educators (essentially, teaching assistants) to hire a smaller number of actual teachers.

Employee Traci Makowski had a problem with that.

“How are three teachers going to do the work of eight paras? How are they physically going to do that?” asked Makowski, describing the private tutoring, class supervision and support that paras provide throughout the day, especially while teachers are in the front of the classroom, writing lesson plans or in other meetings.

“Look at the paras you have here to tonight and see they aren’t just a number or a name on a piece of paper. These are paras who have families and responsibilities, just like you, who have dedicated their personal and professional life to the Indian River School District. … We did as asked, and we overwhelmingly passed the referendum. We are now asking for your help to keep para jobs,” she said, amid cheers from the audience.

State decides the budget

Schools across the state are in the same boat, Steele said. Everyone is worried about the State approving major cuts this summer. The IRSD was expecting the first $1.2 million cut, but not the $300,000 for transportation, $38,000 for energy costs and, most desperately, $2.2 in education sustainment cuts, which pays IRSD salaries through the tight summer months, before local taxes arrive in autumn.

Those losses will be even more critical for other school districts.

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

“Contact your state senators and state representatives, who are the ones wanting to cut educational funding to us and having us make these decisions,” Board Member James “Jim” Fritz told the crowd. “Take the same energy and contact them immediately.”

“We need your help,” Steele wants people to know.

Citizen questions openness of meetings

Also during public comments, Bob Maloney accused the board of meeting secretly: “There are things called sunshine laws, Freedom of Information Acts. You have grossly violated all of them.” He scolded the board for not including a public comments section on the April 10 agenda and not posting documents that were discussed.

“You people better know what your responsibilities are. The public has a right to speak, to see, et cetera, et cetera. You cannot deny it to us,” Maloney said.

Steele said the April 10 meeting was intended as a workshop, but when people came forward to speak, the board had added public comments.

Board President Charles Bireley usually moves almost all budget discussions to executive session (with board approval) because, he said, the discussions impact individuals’ jobs or job responsibilities.

However, the actual votes to approve a course of action are made in public, generally after the executive session has concluded.

Individual staff contracts weren’t part of many budget items on April 10 (instruction or discretionary items, plus already-empty administrative positions). However, administrators moving or cuts to support staff did roll into the broader package, which is why everything was discussed at once in closed executive session, Steele said.

Ultimately, it’s the board’s decision, by majority vote, to enter and exit executive session.

The Delaware State Code’s open meeting law lists all the circumstances under which a board may keep information private, including:

(1) Discussion of an individual citizen’s qualifications to hold a job or pursue training unless the citizen requests that such a meeting be open.

(2) Preliminary discussions on site acquisitions for any publicly funded capital improvements, or sales or leases of real property;

(3) Activities of any law-enforcement agency in its efforts to collect information leading to criminal apprehension;

(4) Strategy sessions, including those involving legal advice or opinion from an attorney-at-law, with respect to collective bargaining or pending or potential litigation, but only when an open meeting would have an adverse effect on the bargaining or litigation position of the public body;

(5) Discussions which would disclose the identity of the contributor of a bona fide and lawful charitable contribution to the public body whenever public anonymity has been requested of the public body with respect to said contribution by the contributor;

(6) Discussion of the content of documents, excluded from the definition of “public record” … where such discussion may disclose the contents of such documents;

(7) The hearing of student disciplinary cases unless the student requests a public hearing;

(8) The hearing of employee disciplinary or dismissal cases unless the employee requests a public hearing; and

(9) Personnel matters in which the names, competency and abilities of individual employees or students are discussed, unless the employee or student requests that such a meeting be open.