Brad Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer, spent two hours talking to the board about the school district administration’s preliminary suggestions in order to keep Cobb Schools from going into debt in fiscal year 2014.
Prior to his presentation, Cobb Superintendent Michael Hinojosa addressed the board about what they were about to see.
“The district staff has been working on this for the last two months. We expect you to be angry, mad or in denial,” he said. “This is the worst-case scenario and much different than last year.”
Hinojosa also said he is very confident that there would be no teacher layoffs in this budget.
Johnson’s initial suggestions include five furlough days and eliminating five instruction days at a savings of $15.5 million; not implementing a salary step for employees, $10 million; expanding the walking distance for students in elementary through high schools for bus pick-up to 1.5 miles, $4.6 million; using $22.2 million from the district’s reserves; and reducing teacher positions by 295 through attrition, $22.1 million.
“We tried to pick options where we thought that it could benefit our kids the best,” said Johnson.
And although the ideas were just preliminary suggestions and not set in stone, it didn’t bode well with board members.
“If you couple (some of these together), the message it sends to our teachers in the classroom is devastating,” said Kathleen Angelucci, who represents north Cobb.
She was referring to the step increase recommendation, reducing teacher and administrator positions and furlough and instruction day decreases.
Angelucci also said the transportation cuts to the district’s magnet programs and the Boys and Girls Clubs at a savings of $1 million, “sticks in my craw.”
Johnson said he understood her discontent and appreciated her voicing her concerns because he knew it was important for the board to have an in-depth discussion about his suggestions.
Questions from educators
Board members were not the only ones questioning Johnson’s recommendations.
“I knew that the budget was going to be dramatic, but I was unprepared for the extent of the cuts,” said Connie Jackson, president of the Cobb County Association of Educators. “Our students will be tremendously, negatively impacted and the safety of our students could be impacted.”
One thing she is against is the bus route change, especially for students in elementary schools.
“Can you imagine kindergarteners walking a mile and a half by themselves down Austell Road?” she asked.
Jackson also anticipates negative responses from her nearly 2,000-member organization on the idea of their not getting a salary step increase and the district only providing half credit for new teachers.
“That’s going to be dramatic,” she said. “They’d be taking a huge pay cut, and not only would it impact you the first year but every single year because you’d never catch up.”
She said she is worried the district may not have trouble getting first-year teachers to apply to openings, but there would be fewer veteran educators.
“It’s going to impact the quality of teachers that we can get in Cobb County,” she said.
Jackson said she was satisfied with the reaction from board members upon their seeing the resolutions for the first time.
“I liked that the board members had a lot of questions, had a lot to say about some of the very contentious issues on this budget,” she said. “I was excited that they looked at some of the ones that are very questionable to us, and I hope that the level of discussion will be great because some of these are not good ideas.”
Not all suggestions involved cuts
Johnson also presented the board with a concept he called “Strawman,” which is a new spin on how the district will educate students and, if successful, could potentially save the district around $100 million through the 2018 budget year.
It would involve offering more online classes to students during a regular school day. The district would essentially collect funding from the state based on the number of students who take the classes.
Johnson said the idea is that it could save the district money because a classroom teacher makes on average $75,000 a year, compared to an online teacher who could bring in around $31,500, not including benefits.
Johnson said the first year they would start slowly by opening this opportunity up to around 66 teachers and then increase that if it proves to work well.
“This will allow us to continue to think out of the box,” he said.
The proposal is the district’s attempt at finding an alternative model of education, which is what Hinojosa has said would be needed in the near future to resolve budget issues.
“This will not be for all students though,” he advised.
It will give students a chance to earn extra credits if needed and could allow staff to earn extra money by teaching the classes.
Every board member asked a number of questions about the concept, and David Morgan, who represents southwest Cobb, congratulated the district on the idea.
“Kudos to the superintendent and staff for innovation and thinking outside the box,” he said.
The plan was included in the budget resolutions as saving the district money down the road, but initially it could cost about $3.9 million to get up and running.
Approvals made by board
In other business Thursday, the board approved six SPLOST-related construction projects at seven schools, the request of retirement from a Kennesaw middle school principal and Hinojosa’s administrative cabinet.
The construction projects will cost nearly $3.2 million in total and are estimated to be complete sometime before the end of July.
Cathy Wentworth, Palmer Middle School’s principal, was approved to retire effective May 31.
The superintendent’s cabinet is made up of 14 people, including Deputy Superintendent of Leadership and Learning Cheryl Hungerford and the district’s five area assistant superintendents, Deputy Superintendent of Operations Chris Ragsdale, Chief of Staff Angela Huff and the director of communications, Chief Academic Officer Amy Krause and her two assistant superintendents, and Chief Human Resources Officer Michael Shanahan.
Each of their contracts was extended from July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2014.