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St. Louis Public Schools district cuts $2 million -- but has $11 million to go

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov 18, 2009 - The St. Louis Public Schools district has shaved another $2 million off its deficit by closing buildings for seven days during winter break and furloughing employees for two days, but it still has another $11 million to go and Superintendent Kelvin Adams says there are no places to find very large chunks of it.

"We will look under every rock," Adams told reporters after the district's Special Administrative Board meeting at school headquarters Thursday night. "There are no big rocks."

Adams said the district could make up the shortfall with increased revenue, perhaps from having more students eat government-subsidized meals at school, and through more cost-cutting. But he pledged that any such reductions would be made in areas such as transportation and buildings, not in ways that directly affect the district's students.

"We will do everything in our power not to affect student achievement as we make these budget decisions," he said.

He also noted that the decision to have employees in the district take two furlough days -- a move that will save $1.7 million of the cuts made Thursday night -- was made in cooperation with Local 420 of the American Federation of Teachers, and any further actions also will be made in consultation with employee groups.

"They have been very, very, very supportive of the decisions we have made," he said.

Union President Mary Armstrong had explained the furloughs to her membership in a video on the Local 420website, noting that other options such as a 5 percent across-the-board pay cut, having employees pay a percentage of their benefits or having layoffs of non-teaching personnel had been rejected.

Union Vice President Byron Clemens addressed the meeting Thursday night, noting that the union had gone along with furloughs -- on days that class will not be in session, probably Jan. 4 and Feb. 5. But he also questioned why payroll at the district's headquarters had increased at a time that the schools faced a deficit.

After the meeting, Clemens said furloughs were being used instead of layoffs as a way to cut costs in many businesses nationwide, and "we thought we would spread a little pain to everybody to keep those jobs."

But, he noted, "we have questions about some of those newly hired folks with some hefty salaries, but we don't make those policies."

Adams acknowledged that the payroll for senior level personnel has risen $80,000 overall over the last year. Asked about Clemens' statement, he said: "I understand they have a level of concern.

From accountability to accreditation

The three-member Special Administrative Board also approved an accountability plan that is designed to help the district regain the accreditation that the state took away in 2007.

The 48-page, two-yearplan  addresses the shortcomings that were identified then in the areas of student achievement, finances and turmoil in the district's management.

It covers a wide range of actions, setting benchmarks and target dates along the way in areas ranging from learning in the classrooms to building maintenance to professional development for teachers and more.

In preparation for the district's possibly becoming accredited again, Missouri Commissioner of Education Chris Nicastro has reconvened the five-member panel whose work led to the state takeover of the district.

The committee, led by former Washington University Chancellor William Danforth and attorney Frankie Freeman, is expected to hold public meeting, then submit its recommendations on the circumstances under which the schools should revert to local control, including any changes in the law that may be needed.

In other actions, the board heard about progress in vaccinating students at city schools for the H1N1 virus. The vaccinations -- with a flu mist instead of the shots that often bring what one staff member called "trauma and terror" to the students -- began Wednesday with elementary students and will continue with middle school, and finally high school into the second semester.

The board members declined to vote on a proposed 5 percent cost-of-living increase for district retirees that had been recommended by their pension plan. Clemens said the retirees have not had a cost-of-living raise since 2003. The increase would not have affected the budget deficit because the money comes from a different source.