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Wed, Jan. 29

PUSD officials outline plan to cut $1.7M from budget

Prescott Unified School District administrators rolled out a plan Tuesday that would cut at least $1.7 million from its 2011-12 budget.

District officials know they will have to cut the budget because of declining enrollment and increases in health insurance costs and contributions to the state retirement system.

Administrators are considering three tiers, each with two options for scaling back the budget. Tier 1, which is inevitable, they said, includes the option of eliminating music, art and physical education teachers at elementary schools - a total of 14 full-time and part-time positions - for a savings of $500,000. Cuts at the middle schools include physical education and music teachers, as well as a counselor and computer science, special education, home economics and one core class (math, science, language arts or social studies) position, for a total of eight full-time and part-time positions and a $400,000 savings.

Prescott High School would lose 10 positions for a savings of $500,000. Those positions include English, math, physical education and social studies teachers.

Option A includes the elimination of two teachers, one at Abia Judd and one at Taylor Hicks, because of the need for fewer teachers at specific grade levels, for a savings of $94,000. The district would save $154,000 by moving the English Language Learner programs into the classrooms.

Option A also includes a $65,000 savings in transportation costs.

Tier I Option B would eliminate $1.6 million from the district budget, but keep all of the elementary music, art and physical education teachers. The two elementary teaching positions would still be eliminated. The cuts to the middle schools and high school, ELL and transportation would remain the same.

Additional Option B cuts would include eliminating the district office receptionist ($34,000), elementary general education aides ($98,000), four additional elementary teachers ($187,000), and behavior coaches ($122,000).

The elimination of additional elementary teachers would be at Abia Judd, where a plan was already in effect to reduce the number of classes over a seven-year period. The timeframe would be condensed into the 2011-12 school year.

Governing Board President Steve Campbell said board members have received calls during the past few weeks about the budget cuts.

"This is not a night for picking and choosing," Campbell noted. "We won't vote until we know what the state does."

Superintendent Dave Smucker explained district officials visited the schools this past week to meet with staff to discuss the plan. He said building principals meet individually with people whose jobs are on the line.

"It is important to recognize that this situation with the economy is not just in Arizona, but nationwide," Smucker said. "Our job is how to provide the best education for students."

Another component of Tier 1 is the way the district provides transportation to students who ride the bus.

Transportation Director Jim Cowan explained that some students currently transfer from route bus to route bus to get to their schools - some as many as four times.

Beginning next year, Cowan said bus routes would be divided into zones according to school. Students will no longer be able to transfer buses to attend a school outside of their bus zone.

Cowan and district officials said this does not eliminate open enrollment and students could still attend the school of their choice. However, parents would be responsible for transporting their students to and from school if they attend a school out of their bus zone.

Cowan expects this to save the district between $72,000 and $100,000 in combined personnel, fuel and maintenance costs.

Granite Mountain Middle School Principal Stephanie Hillig reported that the district leadership team discussed this transportation change and agreed that it will not eliminate open enrollment. What it will do, she said, is reduce waiting time for buses, reduce time on the bus, eliminate blending of schools (elementary with high school) and the number of hours teachers would have to be on duty. Bus drivers would also know the students from their specific schools.

"In summary, if you live outside the proposed zones, it will be the responsibility of the parent or guardian to get their kids to school," Hillig said.

Cowan stated that the district would continue to bus students from the Chino Valley and Humboldt school districts.

However, those students will be transported with limitations. They will no longer be able to choose which elementary or middle school they attend.

Cowan said the buses from Chino Valley would stop only at Abia Judd, Miller Valley, Lincoln, or GMMS, while the buses from Humboldt would stop only at Taylor Hicks, Washington Traditional or Prescott Mile High Middle School.

Prescott Education Association President Mike McCrady appreciates the hard work that went into developing the plan. However, he would have liked to see a classified and certified employee at the table as decisions were being made, he said.

"But I do think we will have an opportunity to speak," McCrady added.

Whether the district makes additional cuts will depend on what the Arizona Legislature does to balance its budget.

District officials proposed Tier 2 and Tier 3 cuts that would be considered if the district needs to cut more than $1.7 million from its budget. Officials are preparing for the worst, they said, which could bring the total budget cut to $4 million.

If the district must cut more than $1.7 million, the governing board could choose from a list of additional options that include cutting library service by 20 percent, supply cuts, eliminating one classified person per school, replacing school nurses with nursing aides overseen by a registered nurse, and reductions in the gifted and preschool programs.

Assistant Superintendent Joe Howard indicated that the governing board could determine which areas it wanted to cut.

Tier 3 is a worst-case scenario. It includes the elimination of special education aides where applicable and not required by an individual education plan, the elimination of computer techs, and, if not chosen in Tier I, the elimination of elementary music, art and P.E.

Tier 3 also includes the possibility of furloughs, which could save the district $100,000 a day, and salary reductions, saving the district $200,000 for each 1 percent reduction.

The district could also consider changes to health insurance coverage.

Finance Director Renee Raskin hesitated to estimate any changes until the district receives information from its insurance provider. PUSD is self-insured with HUSD in the Yavapai Unified Employee Benefit Trust.

Raskin said the board would look at health insurance during its next meeting.

Howard said district officials and building principals had lengthy discussions about "how to make cuts that are not complete program cuts."

Board member Dee Navarro sees the proposal as a "student-centered plan. It is our job as a board to keep students in mind."

Board member Tina Seeley said she likes this plan better than the 2009-10 plan because "it feels more unified."

On Wednesday morning, Howard said that in the past the district made general reductions in force based on seniority, but is no longer required to use that criterion. Howard added that if the Legislature makes an early decision, there would not be a general RIF.

Smucker said, "Our focus is to not lose sight of what kids need to be successful."

As the district plans cuts, employees will not get raises. In fact, with increases to insurance and retirement, employees may see a reduction to their paychecks.

Howard noted that 2011-12 will be the fifth year that teachers have not received a raise, and the sixth year for administrators.

Raskin said that this plan would require all remaining employees to "pick up the slack."

To do that, Smucker said it is critical that the district provide teachers with the professional development they need to be successful.

The superintendent added that district officials are "not losing sight of what is important - which is for kids to learn and grow."

The Daily Courier will publish a follow-up article next week about the plans school principals have for delivering education with a reduced workforce.

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