Responding to mounting public criticism, Fayette County Superintendent Tom Shelton has put cost-cutting staff changes on hold so he can involve more people in the conversation. But the wording of his first emails on the postponement offended a board member.
School board member Amanda Ferguson countered, "I would just say that I find it both offensive and insulting for the superintendent to imply that those of us — including board members, teachers, parents and students — who have questions and want answers about staffing changes are paranoid."
Shelton said he pulled a new staffing formula for schools from the school board's Monday night meeting agenda. In emails and a news release, he pledged to get public input before further action. The staffing proposal was part of plans to cut $20 million from the district's budget.
Parents and staff have expressed concern that little information has been released about school job reductions.
Although the new staffing formula has been pulled from the agenda, the board will be asked Monday night to change language in staffing policies to reflect state law.
Monday's news release said that 88 percent of the Fayette County school district's spending goes to salaries and benefits for the district's 5,815 employees.
"We cannot balance the budget without impacting our employees," Shelton said in the news release. "We face tight time lines and strict deadlines under state law. But we cannot move so quickly that we risk breaking faith with the people we serve.
"We will put the staffing changes on hold until we have time to bring more people into this conversation. We will be open to suggestions and questions and move forward in a way that allows for open and honest discourse."
Shelton also will host a public forum at 6 p.m. March 6 at the district's main offices, 701 East Main Street, to answer questions and gather input.
The district will establish a web page, FCPS.net/budget, where officials will make information available throughout the process, Shelton said. Board chairman John Price said Monday that board members support Shelton's decision to hold off until he had more input from parents, staff and others.
"We want everybody to understand the situation we find ourselves in," Price said. With the public forum on March 6 and the website, "everybody should have ample opportunity to give us additional input he said."
Last week, board member Ferguson walked out during a specially called board meeting about the district's budget and proposed staff reductions. Ferguson said she walked out because she was frustrated and annoyed with Shelton's responses to questions.
Fayette schools spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall has said that all of the recommendations that were firm have been shared publicly. Shelton has not said how many positions will be cut. However, district officials have said that rumors about cuts to band, orchestra and arts programs are unfounded.
Shelton has said the district will have to trim $20 million, about 5 percent of the district's general fund spending, from its 2014-15 budget to present the school board with a balanced budget in May. The cuts will not compromise student achievement, according to Shelton's earlier comments.
In 2009-10, the fund balance or reserves in the general fund was $56.72 million; the fund balance is $36.5 million this school year, Shelton has said.
In the latest email to parents, Shelton said school districts around the state have had to cut their budgets drastically as national and state economies have struggled over the past several years.
Because Fayette had a reserve to cover state and federal cuts, the district was spared decisions about cutting teachers or eliminating programs. Officials knowingly dipped into the reserves in order to maintain innovative programs, Deffendall previously said.
While other school districts had significant layoffs, Fayette County raised employee salaries to recruit and retain the most talented staff to serve students, Shelton has said.
"It took seven years to get to this point," Shelton said in the email to parents. "We have weathered it for a long time. But as expenses have continued to increase, we are now in a position where our spending is outpacing our revenue."
"If we could absorb the entire cut at the district level, we would do that. But that is mathematically impossible. Even if we shut down the district office, it would not be enough to balance the budget.
"And there is no way that a district with 41,000 students, 66 schools and special programs, and 5,815 employees can function without an administrative staff to run payroll, pay the utility bills and assign subs when teachers are absent," Shelton said.
The superintendent has explained that each spring, schools receive an allocation that outlines the number of positions each school has earned based on projected student enrollment numbers.
School-based decision-making councils then determine how to staff each school, setting class sizes, schedules and course offerings.
A committee of principals, district leaders, and education association representatives has worked for the past several months to determine how the district can trim spending without affecting students.
The first task for that group was to look at the school council allocations, because under state law, the district has to make those changes by March 1.
The board does not have authority to determine changes in teacher-student ratios. District officials will share proposed formula changes with the board once the final decisions have been made, but determining the formulas is an administrative function that the board doesn't vote on.