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School board discusses staff attrition, budget

SALISBURY — The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education squirreled itself away Thursday for an all-day budget planning retreat, but the conversation kept circling back to an unlikely topic — staffing.

More than two hours of the six-hour retreat were spent discussing potential staff optimization strategies and their possible effects on the budget.

“What we have right now in our schools are equal services. So regardless of whether you’re a school with 300 or a school with 900, you have the exact same services,” Assistant Superintendent Julie Morrow told the board.

But depending on the student body size and population demographics, some schools might not need a full-time technology facilitator or may need more than one assistant principal. The goal, Morrow said, would be to achieve equity in schools rather than staffing being equal.

“For a school of 370 and a school of 900 to have the exact same staffing is not equitable,” Morrow said.

It’s a plan that began taking shape in early 2017, Superintendent Lynn Moody explained, and one that she hopes to finally see put into action.

Should the proposal be approved, district administrators would work with principals to determine what optimal staffing would be in their schools — would they need more support personnel or fewer?

“What is our optimal level of staffing by school?” Chief Financial Officer Carol Herndon asked. “We want to drive our strategy by putting money where we need it the most.”

The administration’s proposal is to optimize staffing by eliminating or repurposing as many as 10 positions through attrition or transferring staffers to other schools by July 1. By December, principals could identify a total of 10 other positions, districtwide, to repurpose or eliminate.

Decisions on which schools and which positions would be included would be determined by data such as average daily attendance, number of at-risk students, exceptional-children population and the number of students who speak English as a second language.

If approved and implemented successfully, Herndon estimated that the district could save $1.5 million that could be put toward other initiatives, such as funding state class size mandates in coming years, increasing teacher supplements, hiring full-time substitute teachers or increasing school resource officers.

The district staff will discuss the possibility with principals at an April 10 meeting. But board Chairman Josh Wagner warned that the administration would need to be clear and open and to take initiative on communication.

“My concern is that people will see this and think automatically we’re going to be losing teachers, automatically we’re going to have bigger class sizes, automatically we’re going to be getting the short end of the stick” Wagner said. “So that’s the other thing is letting them know that nothing’s going to really change as far as the environment. We’re just reshuffling some things — we’re not taking away from you to give to another. We’re just trying to address things in a more efficient manner.”

Moody agreed and said there should be discussions about why schools have certain positions. Traditionally, she said, not ever elementary school in Rowan County has had an assistant principal. Now they do. The district and administrators needed to examine why that move was made and if it is necessary in all situations.

“It’s a question. … We don’t have answers for all of that, but we think that we can find some,” Moody said. “You’ve got to take some things off the table to put some things on the table — but for good reasons.”

Currently, the district has nearly $4 million in budget requests for the 2018-19 school year. Applying the potential savings from staff optimization could cut that amount to $2.2 million, Herndon said.

But that comes with issues all its own.

“It’s not going to be easy,” she said. “It’s not going to be a quick, fast, aligned conversation.”

If the proposal isn’t approved, the board will have to deal with an entirely different problem, Moody said.

“We’re not going to ask the county for an additional $4 million,” she said. “… Some of it you’re going to have to scratch off the list entirely.”

Funding requests include more money for Rowan County Early College, after state funding was cut last year; ongoing funding of teacher supplements; increasing substitute pay; hiring 12 full-time substitutes; replacing funding from a Discovery Education grant currently covering middle school programs; continued funding for the restorative classroom program; and expansion and funding transportation to the Knox Center for Accelerated Studies.

As the conversation circled back to staff optimization, board member Dean Hunter suggested that the district look for a way to optimize all its resources — not just staffing.

Board member Jean Kennedy said she is fine with working solely through attrition but is not comfortable giving principals the autonomy to decide which positions to cut or repurpose. Wagner suggested that should the plan be approved, all decisions be handled by the central office.

But Moody argued that principals should be given the ability to decide what is best for their school.

“We’ve not headed in that direction because we don’t want everyone making the same choice,” she said of central office control. “Let’s be clear that the positions we’re talking about are support positions; they’re not … classroom teacher positions.”

If principals weren’t given autonomy, it would take the administration much longer to meet the goal and could make staff members more upset than they might already be.

“This will not be pretty. And it will not be fun. It will be a lot of work,” Moody said.

Board member Richard Miller suggested a staff-sharing opportunity between geographically close schools, like schools in the North district have.

Wagner suggested that the district could put some parameters in place — such as principals be allowed to eliminate or repurpose only specific positions.

Before anything is decided, Herndon and Morrow said, the proposal will come before principals, and the district staff would look at the data for the district and for each school.

“I think we need to have a little more meat to this, even today, before we do anything with this,” Hunter said.

Central office staff will go over staff optimization with principals on April 10. On April 12, the board will hold a called meeting at 1 p.m. to discuss the issue further. The district’s first budget deadline is April 18.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264. 

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