Schools trim costs but still need millions more

Cost-saving efforts since July by the Fayette County School System have trimmed $2.5 million in expenses during the first half of the school year and are projected to result in a June 30 fund balance of $5.8 million.

While significant, that total will still require many millions more to be cut to ensure a balanced budget for the 2013-2014 school year.

Interim Superintendent Dan Colwell on Monday said the recommendations on those cuts will come in the next couple of months.

Deputy Superintendent Sam Sweat said the school system began the year in July with a projected June 30, 2013 fund balance of $800,000. That projection has swelled to what is anticipated to be a June 30 fund balance of approximately $5.8 million due to cost-saving efforts put in place last summer.

Of the projected year-long savings, $2.5 million of that amount has already been accounted for, Sweat said, largely in the form of personnel and benefits through attrition. And by June 30 the majority of the anticipated $5.8 million will also come in the form of savings in salaries and benefits.

Sweat and Colwell said the savings come from not filling personnel positions as they become vacant during the school year. Colwell said some position vacancies, such as a chemistry teacher, must be filled with a regular hire with benefits. But many others that must be filled can be accomplished by hiring long-term certified substitutes with no benefits. Still other vacant positions can go unfilled for the time being, Colwell said.

It is the savings realized from holding back on non-essential hires that has enabled the school system to save $2.5 million during the first half of the school year. Those savings should increase to an anticipated $5.8 million by June 30 because a number of people left the school system well into the first half of the year, said Sweat. Some of those include higher paid employees such as former Deputy Superintendent Fred Oliver.

When it comes to cost-cutting and the resulting savings generated during the current school year, the vast majority of those dollars are found in personnel. The reason is simple, as approximately 91 percent of the school system’s expenses are in personnel. A smaller portion of savings throughout the school year will be realized through other expense categories.

“We are watching expenses,” Sweat said, noting the ongoing effort to monitor all expenses and to focus purchases on the items needed for student learning. “The cost-cutting committee four years ago implemented many cost-saving procedures that are still in effect today.”

Sweat’s reference was to the committee set up several years ago when revenues began to fall. The committee at that time recommended, and the school board approved, a large number of minor and major cost-saving measures.

Colwell and Sweat on Monday also commented on the upcoming budget process and the previously stated need by Sweat’s cost-cutting committee to trim $14-15 million in spending from the 2013-2014 budget that begins in July. Colwell said recommendations for the new school year will be presented to the school board for initial consideration in the next couple of months rather than waiting until later in the spring.

The reason is that school system employees and the community have waited long enough to hear the recommendations, Colwell said, adding that employees in the face of significant cuts need to know the status of their jobs for the coming year.

The vast majority of cuts will come in personnel. There are 350 positions funded exclusively by Fayette County taxpayers that carry a price tag of $16.67 million. Those include 117 parapros at $2.925 million, 14.5 counselors at $1.09 million, 14.5 assistant principals at $1.3 million, 49 secretaries at $1.23 million and 150 teachers at $9.75 million. Middle school athletics comes with a price tag of $250,000 while five parking lot attendants cost $125,000, though parking fees do help defray that cost.

Other potential cost-cutting initiatives include reducing central office positions at $1 million, closing at least two schools at $1.6 million, outsourcing the 152 custodians at $900,000, reducing teacher supplements and extended day contracts at $400,000, increasing mileage on school bus pick-up points (1 mile or more compared to the current half-mile pick-up points), combining middle and high school bus routes and conserving fuel at $400,000 and saving $700,000 for every calendar day schools are closed. Pertaining to bus drivers, it was noted in December that Fayette has approximately 200 bus drivers, though the state now pays for only 92.

In terms of other cost-cutting initiatives the board might want to consider, Sweat said a 1 percent decrease in salary would result in a savings of $1.325 million.

The school board is expected to have a work session at 5 p.m. on Jan. 18 to provide direction for the various cuts that must be made. The school board’s regular monthly meeting will be held on Jan. 28.