By Ralph Echtinaw
St. Louis schools face a major challenge between now and June 30, as state government plans to cut its contributions to school districts, but no one knows by how much.
The current figure is $650 per student, but it is changing “weekly, if not daily,” said Superintendent Jennifer McKittrick via email. That would create a $718,000 hole in the current fiscal year and an $852,000 shortfall in the next fiscal year.
“It’s going to be very difficult,” McKittrick said. “We’re going to do the best we can to minimize the impact on kids. And that is what we’re making all decisions based on.”
Layoffs may be in the cards, she added.
On top of that, Kevin Kolb of the Gratiot-Isabella Regional Education Service District told board members Monday that the RESD’s costs have increased. Board members assumed the cost will be passed on to the school districts the RESD serves.
“The RESD needs to tighten its belt a little bit,” Kelly Bebow said. “They need to take pay cuts. I don’t know any district in this area that will be able to absorb the reduction in the allocations that are being given… without either laying off teachers or making some other significant cuts. We need to be looking to the RESD to reduce the amount they’re charging us.”
The board voted unanimously to reject the RESD budget.
“I am not going to vote for something that we don’t know the answers,” Board President Jeff Baxter said. “It’s like, “Here, pass this and read it three months later.’ I just can’t do it. And especially an increase when they expect us to take a decrease.”
Don Kelley said, “I don’t believe we have enough information to vote on it.”
School districts may also take a hit on state aid beyond the per-pupil cut. When schools were ordered closed on account of the coronavirus, the district continued to pay all employees as a condition to receiving full state aid, McKittrick said. “But now we are getting word that we will possibly see a proration to our state aid. This is very frustrating as we held up our end, and now the state is possibly pulling back.”
Cost saving ideas
With a June 30 deadline to form a budget for the next fiscal year and uncertainty as to what state government will do regarding school funding, the district faces a monumental challenge and is cost-cutting like crazy.
McKittrick said that the district’s administration group has agreed to make concessions to help the district, and hours have been cut for non-union, contracted employees. Contracts for the district’s two unions (teachers and support staff) expire on June 30. “We are actively negotiating with the teachers union and will schedule dates with the support staff,” McKittrick said via email.
A financial incentive has been offered to teachers eligible for retirement. “Teachers who are eligible to retire…would receive a financial stipend if they notify the district by June 1 that they are retiring after this school year,” McKittrick said. This potentially allows the district to shuck the higher salaries of experienced teachers.
Others are encouraged to take a voluntary layoff. “We are in the process of informing the teaching staff of the opportunity to take a voluntary layoff,” McKittrick said. “They would then go into a recall pool. If they are a tenured teacher they would be in the recall pool for three years, and probationary teachers would remain in the pool for one year.”
Sharing a superintendent
Baxter surprised the board near meeting’s end when he said he was “approached maybe three weeks ago by individuals from the Breckenridge school district about sharing a superintendent.”
(Breckenridge superintendent Kimberly F. Thompson has announced her retirement.)
Every board member who offered an opinion said it’s worth looking into.
“There’s a lot of upside to it,” Bebow said.
“There’s no harm in checking it out,” Don Kelley said.
McKittrick was skeptical: “I don’t know anything about (Breckenridge schools) except that they’re down the street. I don’t know if this would be a match. There would be lots of information that would need to be presented. I don’t know how you navigate this. I just want to tread lightly.”
Baxter noted that it’s not a given that a majority of the Breckenridge school board wants to do this. “Some of them are interested,” he said. “That doesn’t mean all of them are interested.”
Baxter assured McKittrick that her opinions and positions will be taken into account no matter what. “We wouldn’t throw you to the wolves for no reason.”
Breckenridge School Board President Marcia Vetter-Collins had this to say via email: “At this time, our plan is to hire a full-time replacement superintendent. Not to say (sharing a superintendent with St. Louis) can’t be explored at a later date, but not at this time.”
Other school news
The graduation ceremony for the Class of 2020 has been set for June 18. “A plan will be communicated when we have more information in regard to social distancing guidelines,” McKittrick said.
Parents can pick up their kids’ personal belongings at all St. Louis schools 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday, June 2, and 2-6 p.m. Wednesday, June 3. Parents can drop off school property at the same time.
Carrie Knause Paraprofessional Gabrielle Bass has resigned.
The next board meeting is 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 24.
Board members plan to vote to suspend their $25 per meeting stipend at that meeting in a largely symbolic effort to help the district make ends meet.