The Big Horn County School District No. 2 Board of Trustees continued to grapple with a plan to address 3.8 percent in budget cuts mandated by recent legislative actions this week, involving staff and community members, as much as possible in the process.
The process began with the formation of an administrative committee that met for several weeks in February and March to discuss which cuts would be feasible. The committee reported its findings to the board of trustees for review as part of the decision-making process. The trustees held a special work session on March 6 to review those recommendations and developed a “proposed action plan” that was posted on the district’s website on March 23 for the public to review. A well-attended public meeting was held on Tuesday, March 28, to listen to feedback on the proposed plan.
Board Chairman Bruce Jolley opened the March 28 public feedback session assuring those attending that “nothing was set in stone” and that their feedback was valued. District Superintendent Rick Woodford assured those attending that he had already discussed the proposed action plan with employees who would be directly or indirectly affected by the proposed budget cuts, which is why actual names could be used in the proposed action plan.
Woodford explained the guiding principles that were developed to help the trustees make their decisions. First and foremost was the goal of minimizing impact on students, especially student learning, instruction and student supports, as well as minimizing impact on activities and the overall school experience for students.
“Activities like FFA, FCCLA and athletic programs are an important part of a student’s educational experience,” said Woodford. “We see the value there and want to minimize the impact on those areas as much as possible.”
He said another goal was to maintain a positive school/district climate for both students and staff while keeping staff morale high.
“If we can cut close to a half million dollars out of our budget and students don’t notice it, we’ve done our job well,” said Woodford. “This is definitely one of our goals.”
Woodford said another goal was to minimize the number of staff who would lose their jobs, using attrition as much as possible. The action plan held true to these principles, for the most part, by re-designating responsibilities wherever possible in order to preserve jobs, as well as preserving programs that directly affect student instruction and activities.
The proposed plan
Woodford said “in order to tighten the belt” the board is proposing an across-the-board cut of 5 percent to all district budgets effective in the school year 2017-2018, which would save the district $114,839. These cuts would affect all sports programs, activities, supplies and materials and all other budgets, with the exception of salaries and benefits.
“These cuts save the district a substantial amount of money and get us a fifth of the way there,” explained Woodford. “The truth is we carry over about that much every year and this will just make us more aware of our spending, but it really shouldn’t impact what we do that much.”
Cuts to other areas will be accomplished through attrition and re-assignment of duties. The proposed plan eliminates three staff positions: a counselor, a part-time nurse and an administrator. Woodford said those employees who will remain with changing responsibilities will continue to work the same number of hours.
Another cut proposed was to eliminate the Lovell High School Librarian/Instructional Facilitator position in the coming school year, saving the district $88,395. Woodford noted that the position is no longer funded by a grant and most likely would have been up for consideration anyway.
“This cut was pretty substantial in that it required moving people around to different spots, in order to keep them from losing their jobs,” said Woodford.
According to the proposal, to achieve this cut Robin Baxendale, who currently works in the high school’s front office, would replace the librarian (under the direction of current Librarian Carissa Camp), while retaining some secretarial duties. The district’s administrative secretary Cheryl Bowers would help in the school office in addition to her regular duties in the district’s administrative office.
Camp would take on what Woodford described as a “hybrid position” that would include some of her current responsibilities plus some new responsibilities. Camp will still supervise and oversee the library as she takes on some of the reponsibilites as the Tier II Coordinator, which will be referred to as MTSS Coordinator. Woodford noted that Camp is particularly suited to the newly created position because she is a reading specialist and speaks Spanish fluently.
Stacy O’Tremba will teach fifth grade, Jodi Croft will teach kindergarten and Marilyn Tillett with replace retiring teacher Linda Morrison in the first-grade classroom at LES. This shifting of positions is designed to prevent teacher layoffs.
A half-time nursing position at LMS/LHS currently filled by Kylee Thormahlen would be reassigned in the 2017-18 school year to full-time nurse Meredith Despain. Despain would provide services to all three schools, saving the district $30,940.
Woodford said reducing the nursing staff was a tough decision.
The position of Special Education Director currently held by Jeanette Ohman would be eliminated in the school year 2017-18, with its supervisory and leadership responsibilities redistributed to other administrators. Ohman will be reassigned to a position as special education consulting teacher for the district, saving the district $146,570 in the first year and $70,000 to $120,000 in subsequent years. As a consulting teacher, Ohman will attend IEP meetings to make sure student plans are in compliance with special education laws, utilizing her advanced understanding of the area.
In order to reduce Ohman’s administrative duties, Principal Doug Hazen will take on some of those responsibilities as special education director, in addition to his duties as principal. Woodford said it also may require that Curriculum Director Nancy Cerroni also takes on some of those responsibilities, as well. He explained that the savings come into play because those special education responsibilities are reimbursed by the state.
“It’s just a way of reinventing how we provide special education services, while continuing to provide excellent service to all students,” said Woodford.
A full-time school counselor position would be eliminated in school year 2018-19, with the responsibilities for that position spread to the two remaining school counselors, saving the district $109,083. Woodford said this was another difficult decision and the board has received a lot of comments from the public on this particular action already.
Also in the school year 2018-19 the current LES/LMS art teaching position (currently held by Robin Hengesteg) would be eliminated and art will be integrated into classroom instruction at LES. Deb May would shed some of her tutoring duties to conduct the LMS art classes.
Using attrition, art teacher Hengesteg would be re-assigned to another elementary teaching position as it becomes available, saving the district $79,399. Woodford noted that Hengesteg had already requested a transfer to a position where she could better utilize her specialization in reading and elementary teaching. Woodford said this is a good example of a cut that can be made when someone retires or resigns in the future and whether that happens in two or three weeks or two or three years depends entirely upon when a vacancy occurs.
The cuts over a period of two years total $492,658.52, which is about $20,000 dollars above the 3.8 percent goal. Woodford said he thinks it’s a good idea to shoot for budget cuts beyond what is required since there are many unknowns that will need to be addressed in the future.
Looking ahead, the plan considers possible cuts to deal with any future budget cuts that could be mandated during the 2018 legislative session. Those other cuts under consideration include cuts to summer school and extended day programs, for a savings of $106,684, cuts to transportation, which is no longer 100 percent reimbursable, a freeze on employee salaries and not funding the swimming pool at the school, which would save the district $58,699.
“We really want to be well positioned for the future,” explained Woodford. “That’s why we are looking at these possibilities for the future.”
A number of community members spoke at the March 28 meeting, during an open mic session that allowed a maximum of three minutes per person for comments.
Heather Sawaya, parent of a child who relied in the past on special education services, expressed her concern about changes to the special education staffing that would eliminate a director administering the program.
“My concern is that to cut this position, in order to tighten the belt, would be like chopping off the hands,” said Sawaya. “I’m concerned that to lose that institutional knowledge and special education training would be, in my opinion, shortsighted.
“Our experience in the past, when the position was not a separate administrative position with the principal taking on those duties, was one where the principal often could not attend meetings. When we had questions, the person at the meeting was not authorized to make those decisions. It took forever to get things done and we felt we had to call an attorney because our rights were not being respected. I don’t see where having other administrators involved is saving money for the district. It is just not practical and it doesn’t seem like an effective use of their time. So, for that reason, I would recommend not eliminating that position.”
Steve Cerroni, a community member and husband of curriculum director Nancy Cerroni, spoke about the importance of his wife’s position.
“I noticed in your guiding principles you talked about the minimal impact on students,” said Cerroni. “There is no one here, from the groundskeeper to anyone else, who has a minimal impact on students.”
Though it did not appear in the proposal that his wife’s position as curriculum director was on the chopping block, Cerroni talked about her responsibilities of curriculum director and the vast education and knowledge required for the position and how the curriculum director is an essential member of the school administrative team. He noted how his wife’s administrative duties touch not only each student in the district every day, but each teacher, too, since they use her data to make sure the district is one of the best in the state.
Community member Marwyn Layne suggested a slight cut in salary for all staff, rather than the elimination of any positions, noting that 80 percent of the budget is salaries. She said it would be “sad” to cut any positions, especially in areas requiring special expertise, like special education or curriculum. Layne has grandchildren currently attending the schools.
Counselor RJ May spoke about the importance of counseling in the schools. He noted that he works with students who struggle with issues like self-esteem and academic struggles.
May read a list of his responsibilities as guidance counselor at the middle school, noting that as a counselor he helps students work on academic skills, organization and testing skills. He helps students with coping skills, dealing with others and developing social and communication skills. He also helps students with problem solving and conflict resolution. He works on behavioral management plans with students, as well as understanding data and test results. He helps students with team building, leadership, peer support and many other activities from job shadowing to crisis intervention.
May noted that the middle school principal is already stretched thin with his current duties and adding responsibilities, in his opinion, would be a burden. He also said he was thankful for the opportunity to work in the district and would like to stay if at all possible.
Sawaya spoke a second time, urging the trustees not to cut positions that require specialized training. She noted that the political climate has changed and that it would be better to see if mineral revenues increase again in the future, as a result of that change.
Art teacher Robin Hengesteg noted that when she put in for a transfer it was not her intent to undercut the art program, noting that art education is important and a powerful motivator for students and asked the trustees to consider keeping even a part time art teacher on staff. She noted that art teaches problem solving and builds confidence in students and is therefore an important part of the curriculum.
Jodi Strom, a teacher and parent of children attending schools in the district, said listening to counselor May made her feel grateful to have a counselor at the middle school. She said she would hate to see that service go away.
Carmen Dickson noted how much her children have been helped by having someone (like May) to go to for help, since they are foster children who may not have had that type of support at home.
Layne spoke again about how much her grandchildren have been helped by the school counselor and some of the others in positions under consideration for cuts, urging the trustees not to cut specialized positions.
Marie Thomas also said how the guidance counselor has been a lifesaver for her children, noting that middle school is a tough age.
Written comments were also submitted online through the district’s website. As of Tuesday evening, Woodford said 130 comments had also been received through the survey on the website. Of those comments, he said 56 were positive, agreeing with the proposed cuts. He noted that 63 responded negatively to one or more of the cuts and 11 were neutral.
The trustees went into executive session following the meeting to discuss the public feedback and met again this week on Tuesday evening, partly in executive session, to protect the privacy of employees being discussed, to review and incorporate the feedback they received from the public in their plan.
During this week’s meeting, the board made changes to the proposed action plan. These changes include reducing the curriculum director’s position from full-time to part-time, elimination of the summer school program at Lovell Elementary School, reducing summer contract days of the elementary and middle school counselors, and
reinstating the counseling position at Lovell Middle School. The board will meet again on Monday, April 10, to vote on a final version of the plan.
By Patti Carpenter