Blog: April 20, 2010 Wake County school board meeting

In actions that several members said they disliked having to do, the Wake County Board of Education voted for a budget to propose to county commissioners and agreed to layoffs proposed by the district staff because the system faced a budget shortfall.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The Wake County school board Tuesday took up some of its toughest issues, including its 2010-11 budget and layoffs to help make up shortfalls in that spending plan. The board is proposing a budget based on known cuts in funding from the state, and it may have to revisit the plan if more state cuts come and if the Wake County Board of Commissioners does not provide local funding the school is asking.

As part of cost-cutting, the board approved layoffs of 68 central office staff and eliminating 57 vacant positions from the district.

8:40 – Adjournment
8:30 – Second reading of voluntary desegregation resolution

The board took up a resolution, approved 5-4 at its last meeting, saying that it favors voluntary desegregation. The statement was needed as part of an application for federal aid for magnet schools.

Member Anne McLaurin, one of the four who opposed the resolution last time, argued that an agenda description saying there were no fiscal implications was wrong. Chairman Ron Margiotta said he thought that actions only had fiscal implications if they cost money, while the resolution was part of an effort to get money.

Member Carolyn Morrison, principal in 1982 of one of the district's first magnet schools, suggested amending the resolution to say that in "creating and drawing these attendance zones (for community-based schools), every effort shall be made to avoid minority group isolation of students."

Possible increased populations of minority groups in schools has been an argument that supporters of diversity busing have offered against the community schools policy.

The effort to add Morrison's language failed 5-4, and the resolution again passed 5-4.

8:15 – District office-space study

The board returned to its meeting room after a closed session that included approving Interim Superintendent Donna Hargens' list of names for the layoffs approved earlier. The members also discussed legal matters that they are allowed under the open-meeting law to keep confidential.

It moved into a presentation from Betty Parker of the district's facilities office staff on a study of how much administrative space the district has, what it needs now and what it will need.

The study included at a building at 2302 Noble Road, 3600 Wake Forest Road (district headquarters), 4600 New Bern Ave. and the Crossroads II building at 110 Corning Road in Cary, where the district's Human Resources Department is based. Grubb & Ellis, a real estate advisory firm, looked at options for renting space, renovating current space and building new space.

Over a 20-year period, the lowest cost option would be to consolidate offices in leased buildings. The district could sell buildings as part of the plan, the study said. The study found that keeping current arrangements would be the most expensive option.

The lease-consolidation option could be as much as 33.5 percent cheaper over the 20 years, Grubb & Ellis told the board.

5:30 – Board votes to ax 68 jobs in central services in money-saving step

The board voted 8-0 to cut 68 positions from the current district central staff to save an estimated $4.1 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The board also agreed to finance chief David Neter's request to eliminate  57 vacant positions from the rolls to save another $2.9 million next year.

The list of people who will get layoff notices includes 16 certified positions, people whom Neter said hold educational certifications and can appeal the decisions and request hearings before the board. Fifty-two non-certified workers, which includes both blue- and white-collar workers, are to go.

The board then went into closed session to deal with specifics of who is to be laid off.

The proposed budget includes cutting three certified positions in the district's Organizational Development and Support office and 13 from Instructional Services. Non-certified jobs to be cut are 6 in Organizational Development and Support, four in Auxiliary Services, one in Administrative Services, one in Communications and 40 in Instructional Services.

 5:15 -- Budget proposal passes

The Wake County Board of Education voted 5-3 Tuesday evening to send county commissioners a proposed $1.4 billion budget for 2010-11. It includes $1.2 billion in operating costs and $200 million in capital spending.

4:55 – Bell schedule, cutting more vacant jobs

The board voted to put the district's schools on the 2008-09 bell schedule while adding new schools, a move that will require adding buses and drivers at a cost of about $750,000. The district had shaved 10 minutes from school days during the current year to institute professional learning time for teachers, and buses have been chronically late trying to make all their runs in the allotted time.

Returning to the 2008-09 schedule puts the 10 minutes back in the school day, district spokesman Mike Evans said.

The action came while the board was considering a proposed $1.4 billion budget for 2010-11. Finance director David Neter told the board that the proposed budget includes only what state funding cuts are known now, and more may come as the state deals with its budget deficit and the district finds out what the county commissioners will fund.

Neter noted that no proposal now has cuts in coaches' pay or the number of media specialists in the district. Those are ideas on a list of possible cuts if state funding falls another 3 to 5 percent, which would mean $20 million to $34 million less for Wake schools.

Word of the discussion had brought several media specialists to address the board during its public speakers' session.

Neter said discussions with principals indicated it would be better to cut raises in local extra money that teachers get when they reach longevity points than to cut other areas. That change takes $485,000 out of the budget the staff had proposed the board send to county commissioners.

Neter also told the board that between the board's afternoon work session, his staff had found a way to fund the extra money needed for buses and drivers under the bell schedule the board wanted with a 6,000-student increase and four new schools in the fall.

The budget proposes cutting vacant and filled jobs in the district. Neter said the board is being asked, too, to give Interim Superintendent Donna Hargens authority to cut jobs.

4:40 – Tedesco catches speakers' anger for tea party appearance

Member John Tedesco was the target of an attack during which Chase Foster of Raleigh called him a "Palinesque politician" for addressing a tea party rally earlier this month.

During the public comment section of the meeting, Foster told Tedesco "you should be personally embarrassed" to have been praised by the tea party group and for  saying the public should gain more control of schools. "You have outed yourself" as a demagogue in making a "cheap and repellent" bid to further a political career, Chase said during his two minutes.

Tedesco has been the main spokesman for the board majority's move to drop diversity as a criterion for student assignment and to strive to have students go to their closest schools, instead.

Foster claimed that Tedesco had told what he called "an angry, white mob of political extremists" to "rise up and physically take back the school system." Board members do not respond to audience comments during the public speaking part of meetings.

Earl Johnson of Grace Bible Baptist Church took up the theme later, saying he was worried by Tedesco’s appearance. He asked whether the board would determine if Tedesco had violated the board’s ethics policy that says members should avoid personal and partisan gain from appearing in their roles as members.

“I question whether he can be impartial and objective enough to represent all the children in the Wake County school system,” Johnson said.

4:10 – Staff says it would be hard to open high school before 2016

Joe Desormeaux, assistant superintendent for facilities, told the board that the district expects to get preliminary answers soon from the owners of two sites in Rolesville where the system wants to build a new high school known officially as H-6.

Construction would take about 26 months after all the preliminary investigation and design, Desormeaux said.

The district had begun work on land it acquired at Forestville Road and U.S. 401, but a new board majority earlier this year killed that project at a cost of about $15 million already spent. The decision will delay the school's opening until 2016. The Forestville Road site had been planned to open in 2014.

The staff has had discussions with county and state and asked rights of entry from the property owners so it could go onto the lands. Now, Desormeaux said, officials are getting information about wetlands, rocks and other factors that affect an appraisal, and that valuation is expected later this month.

Member Debra Goldman pressed Desormeaux on how the school could open in 2015. One way is to try to get building permits for parts of the work before the project is all done. The board also could approve design work before its normal place in the school-building process, he told her. It is unlikely, however, that the district can pick up enough time to open a year earlier.

3:15 – Board opens its voting meeting

The board convened its voting meeting. About 20 members of the public were attending, a small group compared to meetings earlier this year when votes about changing the district's assignment policy to emphasize community-based schools rather than socio-economic diversity was on the agenda.

2:45 – Board hears hard budget options if more cuts are needed

School board members were vocal across the political spectrum Tuesday in urging during a working session that budget cuts be kept from classroom spending as long as possible.

Chief Business Officer David Neter laid out the bleak financial picture for the school system for 2010-11and how to handle a possible additional $20 million cut in state funding. The current proposed budget for the year starting July 1 already accommodates another $20 million reduction.

Changes for a worst-case scenario of losing another 3 to 5 percent in state support included possible teacher reductions, fewer supplies and more students in each classroom.

"We know these cuts are ugly," Finance Committee Chair Keith Sutton told the board, but the district wants to be ahead if bad news comes.

Staff told the board that the system is owed money from the state from traffic fines and other sources, but the state cannot afford to pay them.

The session covered possible actions the staff has identified to cut an additional $16 million  if more state money is lost, Neter said. None are in a budget proposal that the board is expected to act on at its action meeting Tuesday evening.

Neter reviewed suggestions his office has received, including a possible four-day school week. There is a potential problem, however, with state requirements for number of days or hours of instruction. Putting five days of school into four days, Neter said would probably affect schedules and has other implications.

One suggestion was to close traditional schools in the summer, but schools already go into office-only mode for utility consumption, he said.

Schools already have planned to adjust building temperatures to have buildings warmer in warm weather and cooler in the winter, and principals said more cuts would be too much, Neter said.

Furloughs are difficult because employee salary money from the state comes for months of employment, not for specific costs. Furloughs would just reduce state funding, Neter said.

He then outlined possible cuts in extra-duty pay for athletic coaches and a number of activity directors. The pay schedule has been in place for several years, Neter and board member John Tedesco said. Member Debra Goldman said the rates in effect for experience levels had been set in 1988, and coaches and others have received raises only as they accrue years in their positions.

Part of the school system's budgeting problem, Neter said, is not knowing how much the state will give to schools until after the district budget has to be decided. Neter said he expects the district to have to begin its fiscal year July 1 before a state budget is in place. The budget has to go to the county commissioners by May 15.

In the meantime, the district is analyzing Gov. Bev Perdue's proposed budget, which  she released Tuesday morning.

Member Debra Goldman told financial staff to look hard at expenses that do not affect students, such as how many employees get district-paid cell phones.

Member Kevin Hill reminded members that the current proposal calls for cutting spending by $100 per student. "I didn't teach math," the former teacher and principal said, "but $100 times 140,000 kids is a whole lot of money."

The board needs to stand  up for the minimum needs to have a top-quality school system, Hill told the room.

Tedesco said that if the county commissioners keep schools at flat funding while cutting other departments, the board should be thankful. Like member Anne McLaurin, however, he said the board still needs to clarify its priorities for tight economic times.

"We need to go over and above to protect what's happening in our classrooms," member Debra Goldman said. She said she thinks the system could find more costs to eliminate before touching classroom spending. "I know that's going to make me some 'unfriends' in this room, Goldman said.

1:50 – No change likely for school schedule

A majority of the Wake County school board decided Tuesday at their "committee of the whole" meeting that will vote to keep current bell schedules and find a way to cover an estimated $750,000 that will cost over 2009-10.

Last week, the school board made $20 million dollars in cuts, which means larger class sizes, fewer supplies, hiring freezes and layoffs.

During the board's committee meeting Tuesday, members will discuss contingency plans for possible additional state funding reductions for 2010-11.

Board members will also continue their debate about possibly changing school start times, which would save money on busing costs.

Board Chairman Ron Margiotta asked the board to take up schedule changes for schools and buses separately from any costs involved in the various options. The district staff outlined three scheduling plans, including going back to a schedule from 2008-09, doing that with time variations for some schools and keeping the current schedule at a steeper cost.

The goal, Bryan Freeman, business manager for the schools' Transportation Department, said the goal is to get an hour of time between the "tiers" of bus routes for elementary, middle and high schools.

The buses now transport 71,179 students at all levels. Students from all three school levels ride in each tier as officials try to move as many students with as few buses as possible.

Member Kevin Hill suggested staying with the 2009-10 bell schedule and adding what buses are needed for the expected 6,000 new students.

Freeman said that staying with the 2009-10 schedule would require about 50 new buses and about $1.5 million more to operate.

Member Keith Sutton suggested adopting a plan that would use the 2008-09 bus schedule. That would cost about $750,000, Freeman told the board.

"We've got to make a decision on bell schedules before we move on," Margiotta told them.

Sutton said the Finance Committee had identified possible savings to generate the money if a more-expensive busing plan were adopted.

Member Anne McLaurin noted that e-mail to members were about one plan in which changes would have students beginning at 9:30 a.m. while some parents need to be at work at 9 a.m..

Member Deborah Prickett said she disliked starting schools earlier, but, "I don't like the $750,000 either."

The staff's original plan was to have about 70 schools begin 15 minutes later for second- and third-tier bus runs. Member John Tedesco said he felt that plan had too big a community impact. especially on elementary schools.