LRSD budget committee discusses health insurance cuts, changes to school day | Arkansas Blog

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

LRSD budget committee discusses health insurance cuts, changes to school day

Posted By on Tue, Apr 7, 2015 at 6:12 AM

HARD DECISIONS: Who'll bear the pain of LRSD budget cuts? - BENJI HARDY
  • HARD DECISIONS: Who'll bear the pain of LRSD budget cuts?

On Monday, Little Rock School District Superintendent Dexter Suggs and the Budget Efficiency Advisory Committee met to continue discussing plans for major cuts to the district's budget in advance of a loss of state desegregation funding.

The committee is tasked with developing a long-term fiscal plan for the LRSD, which has been under state control since late January. It has no formal decision making power, but its recommendations are likely to carry some weight. It's chaired by former LRSD board member Baker Kurrus.

Suggs told the committee the district is taking immediate steps to save $3.5 million by realigning some 64 positions among administrative staff in the central office, as Max reported earlier, which he described as "the upper senior leadership of our school district." He said people at the top "have to be willing to make those hard decisions."

He also said that reductions will have to come from elsewhere as well. If every central office position were cut, Suggs said, the district would save only $23 million total.

The committee and district staff discussed a number of other options for budget cuts, which would add up to some $29 million in reduced cost spread across the next three fiscal years. Suggs said the district will be able to put itself "in position to save the $37 million we've discussed"; that's how much revenue the LRSD will lose when deseg payments stop in 2017. The superintendent emphasized that none of these options (other than the 64 positions) are finalized.

The two most significant: Requiring employees to contribute more towards their monthly insurance premiums and reducing the amount of planning time for classroom teachers.

A handout distributed Monday suggests reducing employer contributions for health insurance from $357.70 per employee per month to $198 per month by Jan. 1, 2016. That would save the district about $3.2 million.

The state mandates that all districts contribute a minimum of $153 per employee per month, which is a much smaller percentage of overall premium cost than most employers contribute to their workers' insurance (in either the private or public sector). The low contributions are one reason why a relatively small number of teachers in most districts have insurance, and why the state's teacher insurance system as a whole has suffered from an adverse selection "death spiral" that's required two rounds of emergency legislative action in the past two years. Recently, the system has stabilized somewhat, but it's still highly underfunded. Most Arkansas teachers get a very bad deal on their insurance. (And most Arkansas classified employees — bus drivers, janitors, etc — get a deal that's far worse.) In Little Rock, the teacher's union has negotiated a better deal on insurance than in other districts in the state. Of course, that means a higher cost to the district, which is the employer.

Committee member Peggy Nabors, a former president of the Arkansas Education Association, said the drastic cuts to employee benefits gave her "grave concern." She said, "people are going to be panicked as soon as they see this."

Kurrus said that the district has to make painful cuts: "It's time to hit the panic button." But he agreed that good insurance is "part of people's reason for working" for the district and noted that the district is "honor bound by its contract until October 2015."

The committee also discussed changing the school day schedule at the district's three academically distressed high schools, Hall, J.A. Fair and McClellan, from an A/B block schedule to a traditional 7-period day. That would also entail cutting the amount of planning/prep time that teachers now have, meaning instruction would go from 75 percent of the day to 85.7 percent of the day.

A similar reduction of planning time was proposed for middle schools, which would also go from an 8-period day to a 7-period day.

Kurrus said after the meeting that the academically distressed high schools spend far more per-pupil than do the district's higher achieving high schools, Parkview and Central, largely because Fair and McClellan have such low enrollments. Central spends about $6,634 per student, he said, while Fair spends about $9,321 per student. Changing the schedule will help bring down per-pupil costs, he said.

(No doubt that's true.  It's disturbing to hear that the district spends more per kid at the three distressed high schools than the two higher performing ones, and I get that this committee is supposed to just look at finances. But didn't the state take over the district because of academic performance at those distressed schools, not budget matters? I've never heard of improving student achievement at a struggling school by taking away planning periods for teachers.) 

Cathy Koehler, the head of the Little Rock Education Association, reminded the committee at the end of the meeting that the union did not negotiate raises for the current 2014-15 school year "out of respect for the unsettling situation we're in [fiscally]." Employees have been very patient, she said.

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