They’re in the middle of a superintendent search. Next year’s projected revenues fall millions short of covering projected expenses. A brief bargaining session with union leadership ended abruptly Monday afternoon with no agreement to change existing work contracts. They’ve voted to place three levy requests on the May 4 ballot; ballots will be mailed in less than a month. And five of their seats are up for election.
Billings Public Schools trustees certainly have a full plate. Considering that the nine trustees work for free and that most were the only person in their neighborhood willing to serve at the last election or appointment, they have enormous tasks to complete within the next few weeks and months.
Let’s first consider the replacement for retiring Superintendent Jack Copps. One finalist is a New York superintendent whose sole high school spent five years on that state’s list for mandated improvement in math and English. Moreover, the criminal arson and bomb-making trial of a man who was until last year the district’s facility manager has elicited testimony in open court that district administration knew of misconduct by this person and failed to stop it. The testimony included the assertion that janitors were assigned to distribute school election information when they were being paid to clean the schools. Further, a recent audit by New York authorities uncovered tens of thousands of dollars in unexplained overtime paid to the former manager.
The Schenectady City School District is one of the worst performers in the state, according to the New York State Education Department. In a March 9 press release, the department announced that nearly 72 percent of high school students statewide graduated with their classes in 2009. In Schenectady, only 52 percent graduated. Even New York City schools, which historically have had poor performance, graduated 59 percent of their students after four years. According to the state education department, the Schenectady high school is categorized as a “persistently dangerous school.”
That’s not what Billings wants. Regardless of how much Eric Ely’s talk may have dazzled some trustees, the board should eliminate Ely as a finalist and determine whether one of the other three finalists is the right man for the job. Re-interviewing those three candidates, Keith Beeman, Keith Meyer and Scott Rogers via phone or video conference is a good idea.
Regarding salary talks with staff, the unions have legal contracts to receive raises of 3.6 percent next year, the last year of a three-year contract. Jeff Greenfield, president of the teachers union, polled his members and found strong support for discussing a reduction because of the district’s revenue shortfall. In that survey, an example of a possible change was given as accepting a 2.6 percent raise for next year and extending the contract another year with a 1 percent raise that year. However, Greenfield told The Billings Gazette shortly after the poll, that was just an example of what could be negotiated, not necessarily what would be. Trustees representing the board rejected the idea of extending the contract another year or committing to any raise at all beyond next year. Greenfield rejected the idea of a reduced pay raise next year and nothing else. That’s where talks ended.
The unions made a good-faith effort to talk, and proposed a change that would have saved the district $850,000 next year. However, Trustee Joel Guthals is right that the next biennium is likely to bring even tighter school budgets because of the substantial drop in state revenue. The three-year contracts now in force were timed to end next year so the district could get on a negotiating schedule in sync with the state’s two-year budget cycle, a change that would give both sides a better idea of what they have to work with before the contracts are signed.
The budget gap remains. Thomas Harper, the district’s chief financial officer, projected this month that high school district expenses will be $1.98 million more next year than revenues. Trustees have authorized the use of federal stimulus money and other one-time funding to help fill the gap, which would narrow it to an estimated $1.66 million.
In the K-8 district, the gap between revenues and the costs of continuing all programs and services next year is $2.1 million. If all the one-time funds are used, the gap is narrowed to $1 million.
If voters approve, the requested elementary levy would close that gap and put the elementary and middle schools in better financial position to weather the expected financial crunch in the next state biennium.
The high schools, which educate about 5,500 students, have no levy possibility and no choice but to cut this year and probably cut more next year.
Paring back costs of next year’s staff contracts would save the district money and save staff jobs — positions that deliver or support quality education for our children. With those two facts in mind, trustees and union leaders should talk again about those work contracts. Voters will be watching with the ballots only weeks away.