POINT PLEASANT — Declining enrollment, financing pay raises for employees over the state funding formula and changes in that funding formula, have left Mason County Schools in need of an estimated $3.6 million, to balance next year’s budget.
Mason County Schools will of course need to balance that budget and have it approved by the end of May and though the federal government can operate in a deficit, a county school system cannot.
Superintendent Jack Cullen reported to the Point Pleasant Register, major factors in this need for additional money include a decreasing enrollment of 98 students from the previous year. This downward trend in enrollment was not foreseen as Mason County Schools were up 14 students the previous year, Cullen added. He reported an estimated decrease in enrollment of 20 students from last month to this month. Based on birth rates alone, enrollment will likely be down by 43 students next year. This trend can also be found in counties across the state. According to numbers provided by Mason County Schools, estimated changes in enrollment in some other counties, include: Mingo, -125; Hancock, -97; Boone, -171; Randolph and Wyoming, -88, each; Cabell, -298; Putnam, -90. Across the entire state, enrollment in public schools is estimated to be down by 4,800 students.
Bottom line: Less students, equals less state money. With 98 less students, Mason County Schools would be looking at a loss of $862,881 in state aid funding.
Another issue leading to the shortfall are changes in the state funding formula and financing the pay raises passed by the legislature last year, and possibly more this year, when it comes to professional and service personnel who are employed over the state funding formula. These employees have their salaries paid with the excess levy money. At this time, Mason County has roughly 72 employees which are funded over the state formula with money from the excess levy. The levy, renewed last year, employs everyone from nurses, to aides, to teachers and provides other services beyond what the state supplements. The levy, and its rate, were approved by voters before the five percent pay raises were instituted by the state. Also approved last year, an across the board $600 raise for staff and a $300 attendance incentive, which all went into play prior to the subsequent pay raises passed by the legislature.
Cullen said unfortunately, unless other funding solutions can be found, personnel with Mason County Schools will likely be looking at a significant RIF (Reduction In Force) season. RIF letters are required to be out by the first of April with hearings to begin around the first of May.
In addition to being forced to look at a reduction in staff, it’s possible a reduction in days for employees over the 200-day contract would be considered as well to save money.
Prior to last week’s regular meeting with the Mason County Board of Education, Cullen had also prepared proposals for the board to consider, including cutting the pay index of administrators by .05 percent and cutting the pay rates of coaches by 10 percent, to save money.
During the meeting, Cullen, along with Board Members, President Jared Billings, Vice-President Meagan Boncutter, Dale Shobe, Rhonda Tennant and Ashley Cossin heard from both administrators and coaches, all of whom expressed concerns about the financial situation and proposals.
According to school officials, a cut in an administrator’s pay would amount to an annual, estimated loss of $3,000 to the individual and affect around 30 employees. Cuts to the coaches’ pay would vary due to the different amounts and incentives of the contract. The change in the pay index for administrators, would be a savings of an estimated $87,000 total and the cut to coaches, around $35,000 in total estimated, annual savings.
Some speakers also expressed a need for more communication between staff and administration about the financial issues and solutions. However, the overriding question in the meeting seemed to be, “How did we get here?”
Several board members said they felt caught “off guard” by news of the projected diffculty balancing the budget for the next fiscal year, and needed more time to digest the numbers and alternatives to cutting positions and pay.
At the meeting, Cullen said, “I don’t like the fact that I have to look at the situation and possibly make a reduction in coaches’ pay…I’m one of you, some of my best friends are sitting back there,” he said, gesturing to meeting attendees. “I don’t like doing this. I don’t like recommending this whatsoever….same thing for principals. Are they worth every penny? You bet they are…”
Still, Cullen conceded, “we have to start looking at ways that we can reduce the budget so we can balance the budget.” At one point, Cullen also said he expected to take a pay cut during the discussion regarding asking administrators to also make a financial sacrifice. In addition, there was discussion of going from three school board meetings a month, to two, to save from paying board members for a third meeting, and adding more to the existing meeting agendas.
Shobe asked Cullen to explain why cutting days for administrators wouldn’t save money rather than lowering the rate of pay? In terms of administrators, Cullen stated Mason County Schools has an index system that determines the salary for administration and directors, coordinators, principals and assistant principals, that was put in place several years ago. If that index isn’t changed, lowering days won’t change salary.
Cossin asked if there would be some savings in lowering days because administrative staff would have less vacation and sick days, though salaries would not be affected? Cullen agreed it is possible lowering days in that situation may offer some savings, though no figure was given.
“I feel like this was kind of sprung on me, too,” Bonecutter said, adding she understood what factors were at play when talking about the need for additional funding. She then stated, “I still don’t understand why we didn’t predict it. To balance the budget and make cuts, it can’t be at this (cutting staff) expense. I feel like right now, we’re a totem pole, we’re chipping away at the bottom when we need to be working up top. We chip away at the bottom, it’s all going to fall. We’ve got to find a fix…right now, this isn’t it. This isn’t the time for this, yet. I can’t support it.”
Though Cossin thanked Cullen for getting the numbers together and working on proposals for the board to consider to balance the budget, she agreed with Bonecutter, saying cutting staff and salary was “absolutely a last resort” and she needed more time to look at more options.
Cullen stressed his intention is to save as many positions as possible within the financial means of Mason County Schools. There were also discussions, and concern, about the way public schools are funded. Education legislation currently up for consideration by the West Virginia State Senate would reportedly create public charter schools, increase elementary school class sizes in public schools, establish savings accounts for families to pay for private school and require teachers to sign off annually on union dues.
“I really think our state is in trouble,” Tennant said, referencing the decrease of 4,800 students across West Virginia. “Our county school systems are hurting.”
Cullen said at this time, there is no exact number of people who may lose their jobs if funding sources aren’t found. Just because there are 72 employees over the state funding formula, doesn’t mean 72 positions will be cut. Those overages break down into 18.48 professional and 54.1 service personnel over the state formula. Some counties do not have an excess levy to fund overages as Mason County does. If not for the excess levy, even more significant cuts would have to be considered, according to school officials. The previous budget year, Mason County Schools was over an estimated 51 positions not covered by state funding but funded by the excess levy. The voters passed the renewal excess levy at the same levy rate as the previous levy cycle in May 2018. The excess levy has continuously been on the ballot in Mason County since May 24, 1950.
When presented to school board members, the proposals for the cuts to the administrative pay index and coaches pay were voted down. Billings was the lone yes vote for the .05 cut to administrative pay. The cut to coaches’ pay was unanimously voted down.
Mason County Schools has an annual operating budget of around $40 million.
The Mason County Board of Education meets at 10 a.m., Tuesday, Jan. 29 for a special budget meeting, at the Mason County Board of Education Office.
Beth Sergent is editor of Ohio Valley Publishing.