Grappling with $1 million deficit, board poised to pare administrative jobs, department and building expenditures
Confronting a projected $1 million deficit for the 2015-16 fiscal year, the Grafton School Board on Monday endorsed a plan that calls for staff reductions, pared department and building budgets, restruc-tured health insurance coverage and other cost-cutting measures.
“In my 22 years as a superintendent, I’ve never seen a more dire financial situation than the one we face,” Supt. Mel Lightner told the board.
“There are a lot of tough decisions that have to be made.”
Lightner said he and Director of Business Services Kristin Sobocinski have spent three months exploring ways to trim costs without diminishing the quality of education offered by the district. They said their effort, which included several meetings with the district’s insurance consultant, resulted in a series of recommendations that may allow the district to balance the budget without tapping into its reserve fund.
School officials said the deficit is the result of anticipated increases in personnel and operational costs and the loss of $300,000 in categorical aid in the proposed state budget. If the aid cut of $150 per pupil — requested by Gov. Scott Walker — is restored by the state Legislature, the district’s fiscal challenge will be eased.
“We’re hopeful that might happen, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it,” Lightner said. “State legislators are under a lot of pressure to keep taxes down.”
Topping the list of proposed budget reductions in Grafton is cutting two full-time administrators, which would save $233,704. That step includes eliminating the assistant director of learning services position and combining the Grafton High School posts of assistant principal and athletic director.
Lightner said the district will soon begin accepting applications for the combined post.
Other major budget reductions in the plan include: $162,349 in the learning services budget; $100,000 in health insurance adjustments; $65,000 in part-time custodial staff; $50,000 in early retirement; $40,000 in special education tuition and transportation; $35,000 in co-curricular and supervisory pay; $19,500 by eliminating a part-time interpreter; $17,000 in hours for a part-time high school administrative assistant; and $16,945 by eliminating a part-time technology admin-istrative assistant.
In a report to the board, Sobocinski and Lightner noted the board previously supported several parameters for the 2015-16 budget, including a 1.62% wage increase for teachers, classified staff and paraprofessionals; 1% increase in administrative and managerial salaries; and $130,000 in learning-based compensation for teachers.
The board has also agreed to hire one full-time seventh-grade teacher and a half-time teacher for 4-year-old kindergarten and cut one full-time kindergarten teacher and an 8/10ths-time special education teaching job.
Even if all the recommendations are adopted, the district will face a projected deficit of $336,527 if the $300,000 in state aid is not restored, Lightner said. The shortfall could be offset by using reserve funds, which would be reduced to $3.4 million, but Lightner discouraged that approach because it could jeopardize the district’s bond rating.
“We could use fund balance, but that’s a terrible practice,” Lightner said. “It’s not a savings account.
“If we go to a referendum (on facilities upgrades) next spring, we want to have as favorable an interest rate as possible.”
In taking aim at health insurance costs, Lightner and Sobocinski recommended offering employees choices in plans and phasing out the current $5,000 cash-in-lieu payment to staff members who waive coverage. They suggested the district make annual insurance contributions based on its budget rather than premium increases and allow employees to choose between coverage plans at varying premium levels.
“It would be driven by individual choice of the consumers,” Lightner said. “Employees should manage their own finances in health insurance.”
The Horton Group, the district’s insurance consultant, is expected to be at the June 8 board meeting to discuss strategies for the 2015-16 school year. The firm’s input will be used as the board considers a preliminary 2015-16 budget.
The board took no formal action on Tuesday’s recommendations or a spending plan.
“We want to have a preliminary budget approved in June. By then, we should know about the state budget,” Lightner said.
The board tabled considering a change in its policy on employees’ use of sick days for family medical leave as a cost-saving measure. The district currently provides 12 weeks of paid leave annually under the Federal Family Medical Leave Act for the birth, adoption or foster care of a child or a serious health condition of a family member.
Lightner recommended changing that policy to six weeks of paid leave for maternity and paternity leaves, as required by state law. He said each 12 weeks of leave costs the district about $13,000 per employee.
In clarifying the state law, Sobocinski said female employees are allowed up to eight weeks of paid leave if it is taken within 12 weeks after a child’s birth.
The board also discussed the option of allowing maternity leave of 12 paid weeks while limiting paternity leave to six paid weeks.
Board member Julia McNally questioned how much money the changes will save.
“I feel that employees should be allowed to use sick days whenever they want. They have earned them,” McNally said.
Lightner disagreed, contending the district needs to limit that approach, especially in the face of serious fiscal challenges.
“Sick days aren’t vacation days,” he said. “They should only be used when there is a legitimate need.”
The board agreed to wait until June 8 to discuss the family medical leave policy further, after obtaining more information on whether having separate provisions for maternity and paternity leave would be legal.