Question: Alex, what was the final decision on the 2011-12 budget?
Alex: As bad as it started, one way to measure the success is by listing what we didn't cut. We didnít eliminate any classroom teaching positions. We saved the Reading Interventionists, school police officers, kept the alternative school at Simpson, and the budget was balanced ó no tax increase or borrowing. There will not be furloughs nor a reduction in instruction days. It was difficult at times, but I have to say it was one of the most democratic budget processes the board has ever had.
Question: What do you mean?
Alex: In the past, the Superintendent would formulate a budget proposal and for the most part no matter what was in it, from eliminating teachers to raising tax rates, the board rubberstamped and passed it. This time all board members had a hand in the budget and the public was involved too.
Question: I understand the district lost $5.3 million in federal stimulus funding. Cuts had to be made. What was the focus?
Alex: Education is not only about education, but education and the money to pay for it all. Losing $5 million made money management and how we were going to get the most education out of each dollar the focus of this yearís budget process. In particular the aim was to reduce wasteful and non-vital spending, protect the students in the classroom, and live within the financial means of the district.
Question: What non-vital expenditures did you aim to cut?
Alex: We called all the district department heads and the principals of some schools in front of the board and combed through their budgets. We asked questions like why are they spending thousands on employee meals when the district is laying off people? Why are they spending $740,000 on travel? Why are they spending $21,000 on LED signs in front of schools that flash the temperature and time? We were able to cut some of that spending, but the district administration opposed cutting more and we couldnít get a majority of the board to go further. See www.PickensPickens.com then Videos to watch some of the budget meetings.
Question: You say the board wanted to protect the classroom. In what way?
Alex: Last year the district eliminated 105 positions and 27 were classroom teaching positions. I voted against that budget because it raised some of our high school class sizes to 33 students. This year the board put a priority on protecting classroom teaching positions. On June 30, 70 positions were eliminated, but 0 classroom teachers. Later this month, likely the board will vote to add six 4k classes and create 2.5 teaching positions. As a result, the number of teaching positions will be higher this year versus last. The district will add 3 assistant positions for those new classes as well.
All of the 70 who lost their jobs on June 30 have found positions elsewhere in the system, with most moving into jobs where someone retired.
Question: Why the difference from last year to this year?
Alex: Those in charge, make the decisions and they donít want to cut their own staffs. The initial proposal from the district administration had 22 teaching positions on the chopping block and only 1 position in the district office. The majority on the board (Saitta, Trotter, Edwards, Gillespie) put their foot down in the end and teachers were not eliminated, while there were cuts in the district and principals' offices. If some positions have to be cut to balance the budget, protect teachers, right?
Question: Right. How else did the board protect the classroom?
Alex: Each year the state gives the school district $300,000 for classroom supplies. The district has always then given each teacher $250 to buy supplies for their classroom. The initial proposal took the $300,000 and dumped it into the general spending account to fund anything from pencils to administrative salaries. In the final version of the budget the board redirected that money back to the $250 supply cards for teachers. This will mean more supplies for the classroom and the kids.
Question: Does this budget have the district living within its means?
Alex: Yes. It does not raise tax rates, which would have been a mistake as the county is still trying to shake off the recession. Greenville County raised tax rates 4.7 mills. Most elected officials have no clue the private sector is the goose that lays the golden eggs. When you have low tax rates and a strong private sector, revenue to education will be high.
The budget doesnít rely on borrowed money either. That is, the expenditures will be no higher than the revenue for 2011-12.
Initially there was a plan put forward to spend $1.3 million more than expected revenue. This was voted down by Trotter, Gillespie and myself. The main reason I opposed that is the district didn't have savings it could have used to plug the deficit. In fact, for six weeks last fall the district had to take out a $4 million loan in order to meet payroll. My fear was if the district spent $1.3 more than it brought in it was going to have to borrow again this year.
Question: Hasnít the district borrowed enough?
Alex: I think so. The last few years the districtís total debt obligation (principal and interest owed) has risen from $38 million to $600 million because of the building plan. Thatís enough. The district needs to live within its means like everyone else is doing.
Question: I know the district has to live within its means, but to some that means you donít support education. What do you say about that?
Alex: No matter how much is spent, there will always be someone urging the board to spend more, regardless if we have the money or not. And when we donít spend more, theyíll then say we donít support education. The district is spending nearly $400 million on new buildings. Thatís equivalent to building 40 new Easley libraries. The notion education is not supported in this county is baseless.
Question: In the 11th hour the state came in with some additional money for the district. What happened?
Alex: The board added back $1.2 million in spending. That is when we restored 14 Reading Interventionists, the teacher supply cards and funded the auditor.
Question: There was a motion to add more, wasn't there?
Alex: There was a motion to add another $592,000 in spending to add back the few assistant principals and guidance positions that were eliminated and that was voted down. Here is the reason why I voted against that additional spending.
Question: Tell us about the internal auditor position.
Alex: SLED is alleging two employees at Liberty High were stealing from school accounts. The suspicious transactions were uncovered, but it was clear to all on the board we arenít looking close enough at the money that is flowing in and out of schools like field trip money, year book funds, football ticket sales, etc.
Question: What will the auditor do?
Alex: Heíll visit the schools and examine their books. Heíll point out where procedures are not being followed. Heíll also examine check requests that come from the schools, review purchases with procurement cards and root out wasteful spending too. The board is working on the new auditor policy now.
Question: How much will the auditor cost?
Alex: The district has not hired the person yet, but will shortly. We budgeted $60,000 for the position. The choice was to put our heads in the sand and hope no one would ever steal again or take steps to look closer at the district's financial transactions. We did the latter. It was the responsibile thing to do given we dropped the ball on this.
Question: Why do you think this was a more difficult budget process this year?
Alex: I alluded to it in the second question above. In the past the district would make a recommendation, put it in front of the board and 98% of the time it was approved. This new board is more involved, investigating issues, listening to the district administration, but making up their own minds. Usually the board accepts the administrationís recommendation, but sometimes it does not. The rubberstamping days are ending and some are not used to that. Like I mentioned, this budget wasnít solely the product of the district administration, instead, all board members had a hand in it, parents and teachers too.
Question: Why the change?
Alex: In the past there was a belief among the majority of board members the district administration was all knowing not only when it came to education, but finance, buildings, public communications and personnel management.
The district has done a good job in educating the students, and in some other areas, but sometimes in areas outside of education it hasn't done so well. Most of the latter dates back to the previous administration.
Question: For example?
Alex: While the building program has gone well the past two years, it is 20% above its initial budget and a year behind schedule. So far the district has added 500,000 square feet in new building space. The initial budget proposal for 2011-12 from the administration did not add one dime to utility and maintenance spending. In the end, $578,000 was added, but that still isnít enough. On the financial side, the district over hired in the good economic years, so the lay-offs had to be more severe during the recession. Board members bring talents to the table too, often in areas outside of education where the district may not be as strong, so it is a good fit.
Question: I can see the district is starting to sell some of the properties it will no longer use.
Alex: We sold the Liberty High football field for $100,000. The district also sold Dacusville Elementary for $150,000. We have a hand shake for the city of Pickens to buy Bruce field and the Rebound building for $200,000 and a 3 acre piece of property on E. Jones Avenue.
We kept the 7 acres across from Dacusville Elementary and that's up for sale. We also have land on highway 8 in Pickens for sale. The rumor is Walmart is going to build a new store at the old Grant Ford, so that land in that area should be worth a lot. We also have Pickens Middle and Liberty Middle. There has been both public and private interest in those four properties. Every dollar helps educate the children and sure-up the districtís long-term financial situation. For more click here.
Question: What is the outlook for the following yearís budget?
Alex: The economy has stablized. We aren't overspending. Iím optimistic the district will break the string of deficits in 2012-13. There are some short-term fixes that are becoming long-term solutions. We need to fix that. For example, reduce class sizes again, end combination classes, boost building maintenance, and other things as well.
Question: When are you up for re-election? Are you going to run again?
Alex: November 2012, and I am likely to run again.