“The Defining Moment” is how Dr. Craig Pouncey, Deputy State Superintendent of Education for Admistrative and Financial Services, defined his presentation at the Huntsville Schools Board of Education meeting tonight.
This may be a shock, but the State is considering administering the Huntsville City School System. Our school system’s finances are that bad – and much worse than we’ve been told. There may be time later to determine how the schools got into this situation and to whom the blame is assigned, but the City schools have about a month to develop a plan to meet State financial requirements, or else the State will impose a plan.
To give you an idea of how important this meeting was to area leaders, Mayor Tommy Battle, City Councilman Will Culver, State BOE representative Mary Jane Caylor / Mary Scott Hunter, and Madison County Commissioner Faye Dyer attended the meeting. Each offered their support in addressing the crisis.
The Huntsville Times reporter Challen Stephens attended – he has written some great articles lately about the mismanagement of the school system. Thankfully, The Times is fully engaged (and maybe a little riled up) on this issue.
Here are some highlights from Dr. Pouncey’s presentation: we need to “reassure the public” that this a problem that will be overcome, the system is in “troubled waters”, but there is “a path to regain financial stability”. “We’ve got to get the house in order”.
“If this Board can’t, the State Board can”.
Pouncey said there is a “Myth” (that used to be perpetuated by Huntsville school leaders until tonight) that equity funding sent local match tax dollars to other school systems, but the “Fact” is that local taxes collected stay in Huntsville. Actually, the “wealth factor” (based on property value) that the State uses to “equalize systems across [the] State” supports local leaders contention that Huntsville gets soaked, but we’ll set that aside.
Pouncey said that the State has been “reviewing reports” since 1995 and that the Huntsville City Schools Superintendent / Board of Education “should have seen it coming”.
Pouncey said that the school system is supporting a system funded (personnel / school facilities / utility bills / buses) for 33,000 students (capacity), but there are only 22,000 students.
Pouncey cited the School Fiscal Accountability Act (Code of Alabama Section 16-13a) which sets a “minimum reserve” and said that Huntsville has been operating without the reserve since 1995 - Huntsville right now requires a $36 million minimum reserve (we’re already in the hole $20 million – the school budget is about $154 million this year – it’s that bad). Pouncey said the Huntsville Schools must “resize”.
Pouncey said that “Going Forward”, the State minimum reserve balance cannot be State money (it is up to us). The City School budget is funded by the State which provides $110 million, the local match of $19 million, and the Feds $24 million.
Pouncey said the City must take “quick actions” to reduce the $15 million “discrepancy in what is being spent”. The City must develop a “Comprehensive Facility Consolidation Plan” to reduce the overcapacity for 33,630 students to the 22,451 students enrolled (that means closing schools).
Pouncey said (to applause) that “there’s nothing more valuable than a quality teacher”, even as he was saying that teachers must make do without “stuff”.
Pouncey said that the bus system, which costs $3.5 million in State funds plus another $4.1 million in local funds, costs about a million dollars more than it should – he recommended running the bus system in-house rather than through a contractor. The bus routes don’t have enough kids per bus and there are too many routes.
Pouncey’s “Recovery Efforts” have “got to be dealt with within the month”:
- salary schedule far exceeds State rate of reimbursement (we pay teachers too much)
- “willingness to transfer staff based on shifts in enrollment”
- “understanding that priorities must be established and the Board can no longer attempt to provide everything for everyone”
- “understanding that current financial problems will have to be resolved based on local capabilities and factors” (no State bailout)
- “timeliness for proper actions will be critical in going forward”
- “coordinated effort in reviewing, on a monthly basis, all Budgeted Expenditures vs. Actual Expenditures”
- “establishing an immediate partnership between BOE, SDE, and City leaders. This will be essential to your success”.
‘We’re past making people happy’.
The “State is committed to getting through this as fast as we can”.
Mayor Tommy Battle seemed stunned to see this information presented so bluntly (though I have to think he had already seen it), but he rose to say that “this is a community situation” and told the School Board that “your actions over the next several months will define the City”.
Madison County Commissioner Faye Dyer reminded the Board that she made presentations about the shifts in population and empty school seats 3 years ago (which is true) and advised them to “do the tough thing, do the right thing”.
Soon-to-be State Board of Education member Mary Scott Hunter said that “there are two things that will destroy an organization: 1) not knowing the ground truth and 2) lack of leadership”. “This is an operational problem”.
Former Huntsville Board of Education member Ed Starnes (who is a superb and innovative watercolor artist) related that in his first term the schools faced a financial crisis, and that after trying to raise taxes – and failing – the schools fired 480 people. Starnes said that the process, while painful, went smoothly because they “let the public know in advance”. I don’t think we’ll get that courtesy.
Crystal Bonvillian of the Huntsville Times wrote “Lesson on school debt for board tonight”:
Board member David Blair said Pouncey’s presentation is expected to focus on that debt and how the system got there… The discussion will undoubtedly be a mix of the negative and the positive, Blair said.
“He’s going to stress the reasons we are in a deficit, which I think may be more negative than people anticipate,” Blair said. “But there will be positive in that the board recognizes it and, with this current budget and the cuts that we’ve made, we’re moving in the right direction.”
Jennie Robinson said she hopes the meeting with Pouncey leads to more transparency about the school system’s finances.
“I want to find out where we are relative to other school systems,” Robinson said.
Blair and Robinson are also planning to ask for revisions to the system’s reduction in force (RIF) policy, which is designed to reduce the system’s work force in times of budgetary crisis, program changes or decreases in enrollment… Blair said he would like to see a revised RIF policy that is more performance-based than the current policy. The way the current policy is worded, the first teachers to be cut are those classified as nontenured, or probationary, employees.
“It’s clear that the policy didn’t allow (the board) to make the best decisions with the last RIF,” Blair said. “Revisions could allow us to keep more of our best and brightest.”
“I was assured (last year) that we would look at factors other than tenure, and that’s not what happened,” Robinson said. “Decisions were made that, in my opinion, were not in the best interest of the children. We need a policy that will work with us, not against us.”
That wasn’t the first time that Robinson was “assured” of something that didn’t happen. Last year she was assured that Dr. Moore wasn’t lying to the School Board about the C.J. Grisham case (a parent who was harassed by school officials after he spoke up at a PTA meeting). If I were a school board member I would be so sick of the current administration that I would be tempted to fire every administrator and staffer hired by Dr. Moore just to give the next Superintendent a fresh start. We’re about to go through a period of chaos anyway, so now is a good time.
I’ll post an update with The Times report of the meeting when available.
*** UPDATE ***
Crystal Bonvillian of The Huntsville Times wrote “Pouncey: Immediate action needed to solve schools’ deficit”:
To fix the system’s problems and comply with state law immediately would take $36 million, Pouncey said.
“36 million dollars means some expedited decisions will have to be made on how to resize this school district,” Pouncey said. “There is no lifeline coming from Montgomery. We’ve got to make some changes.”
*** ANOTHER UPDATE ***
Dr. Pouncey made his “The Defining Moment” presentation to the Chamber of Commerce. Crystal Bonvillian of The Huntsville Times was there and wrote “School closings likely as system struggles with debt”:
…Pouncey reiterated the message he delivered to school board members at their work session Thursday night, saying that immediate action needs to be taken to save the school system.
“If we don’t do something now, someone will have to put a sign out on the front lawn that says “Bankrupt,” Pouncey said.
Clear thinking from my School Board member:
David Blair said closing schools and rezoning the school district should be the next step in overcoming the financial crisis the system is in.
The useless school uniform policy got tabled – let’s hope for good – we need effective education policies, not pretend feel-good dress up policies.