Photo by George Lauby
Supt. Ron Hanson answers a question from the school's attorney, Joshua Schauer of Lincoln.
Photo by George Lauby
The audience, about two hours into the meeting. (click on image to enlarge)
Photo by George Lauby
High School Counselor Mary Lynn Horst, at left, said there should be more discussion before disagreements reach the stage of a protracted public hearing.
The North Platte school board agreed 5-1 late Monday night to back the adminstration's decision to cut workdays for counselors, psychologists and an industrial arts teacher.The vote came at the end of a seven hour meeting that represented a major challenge for Supt. Ron Hanson's administration.
The majority of the board was unmoved by the testimony of the staff, who talked about their work during the extra days of their contracts. During testimony, the staff often said it would be difficult, if not impossible, to do their jobs adequately in fewer days, but most of them said they would do what they have to do to serve the students.
The majority of the board agreed with the district’s top three central office administrators – Hanson, Associate Supt. Tami Eshleman and Director of Finance and Operations Stuart Simpson.
Those three said the forced reductions would create more efficiency and accountability, primary objectives in the district's strategic plan.
Boardmember Skip Altig cast the only no vote. Before voting, Altig criticized the way the process was handled, after the staff said they were not properly notified and didn't have the opportunity to talk it over with administrators.
Altig said unfortunately, the district needs to cut expenses.
The 50 seats were full in the room, although the audience dwindled as the hours passed.
The reductions are the administration’s response to a loss of revenues of more than $1 million in the coming year. There were 119 fewer students this year, reducing state aid next year by about $900,000. Also, the state will cut another $440,000 in aid to North Platte, because of the sluggish economy and lower state tax receipts, Simpson said.
Simpson said the staff reductions are expected to save the district about $30,000. To make up for some of the rest of the loss, Eshleman said some vacancies caused by retirement will not be filled. For instance, there will be one less teacher at the Learning Center next year. The Learning Center is an alternative program for students who are failing in regular classes.
Also, a 30-year secretary in the psychology department is retiring this year. It is not known if she will be replaced, a school psychologist said during testimony.
The board first approved the cuts April 10. At the same meeting, the top 22 administrators recieved a total of $40,000 in raises.
After the cuts were announced, 9 of the 13 staff members whose hours were cut exercised their right to appeal.
According to testimony, the top three administrators met with the staff to explain the reductions on March 30-31. The staff said they had no opportunity at those meetings to talk about how the changes would affect their work, or the students.
The staff’s attorney, Nathan Welding of Lincoln, also claimed administrators did not follow state law requiring them to notify the bargaining agent (the teachers’ union -- the North Platte Education Association) that a reduction in force was likely.
But Eshleman testified that the cuts will provide more flexibility, forcing the staff and their administrators to talk, to match needs to resources, to develop more accountability. She said the staff and their building administrators can decide if the cuts are necessary, or if they should be expanded or reduced more.
Eshleman said she talked to principals about the plan, but the principals don’t seem to know what the counselors and psychiatrists do during their extra days. That was one of a handful of surprising statements during the hearing.
Eshleman hopes this will prompt better communication.
The staff will be expected to work about half of the extra days, although at less pay.
In closing arguments, the school's attorney Joshua Schauer said the staff will have the opportunity to show the need for the extra days. He said the district is saying, "if you need it, log it, and we'll pay it" and the top administrators believe "the only way to get collaboration is to start here," outside the confines of contracted days.
Schauer also noted that the savings to the district would add up to $150,000 over five years.
When asked, Industrial Technology Teacher Will Winchester said the reduction would cut about $1,200 off his annual salary.
Winchester, a 14.5 year employee, said he has always had an extended contract. Winchester testified that he spends two days at the beginning of the year making sure supplies were properly ordered, delivered and put away in the shop. At the end of the year, he spends three days sorting the equipment, cleaning and doing maintenance. He arranges for repairs when necessary and checks 150 items in inventory, including welding gloves and jackets, making sure they are safe to use. He puts away 40 different welders before the janitorial staff cleans the room. He said it will not be possible to get those tasks done during the regular school year.
The hearing began at 5:30 p.m. and ended at 11:15 p.m. The board went behind closed doors for about an hour before returning to cast the 5-1 vote.
Each board member stated their opinions before the vote.
Ivan Mitchell said he'd love to Santa and double their pay.
"What you do is so very important," he said. "However, we also need to be accountable to the taxpayers."
Mitchell said it's necessary to focus on data, be pragmatic and equitable, and keep pace with the marketplace.
Mitchell said he negotiates physician's contracts, whcih some people think are too high, but compensation must be in line with the marketplace. He said a 185-day contract is the standard in the marketplace.
Mitchell said North Platte's superintendent should be paid a little below the market, and the teachers should be paid a little above.
"We don't set the market," he said. "Cutting close to $1 million is tough, and chances are we will have to cut another half million."
Normal contracts for teachers are 185 days. Currently, school psychologists work 200 days; counselors 198 days and the industrial arts teachers 190 days. The counselors and psychologists said they need to work extra days because they don't get the students grades until the 185th day, and after that, they evaluate the needs of each student and recommend which classes the students will take the following year.
Now, they will all have 185-day contracts for next year, but will be expected to work about half the extra days, when they will be paid by the hour or the day, which amounts to less than the contracted rate.
(This report was expanded Tuesday - Editor.)