BUCKHANNON — Upshur County Schools is taking action to balance their budget in the face of declining revenues.
The school system is looking to reduce spending by $1 to $1.1 million next fiscal year with reductions in staff, the stoppage of the summer maintenance and painting crews for one year and various other measures.
The proposal to reduce personnel was met with some criticism as seven employees requested hearings to plead their case before the board of education Wednesday.
Prior to the hearings, the board of education was presented with numbers regarding the personnel overages and cost.
Currently, Upshur County Schools is over the state aid formula by 6.2 positions in professional personnel and 17.5 positions in service personnel. This means the county does not receive state funding for those jobs.
The overage in positions costs the school system $803,084 a fiscal year.
Assistant superintendent Jack Reger presented slides recommending the board eliminate 10 professional positions (the board has already gotten rid of the facilities director position by not filling the vacancy) due to low numbers predicted for next year.
Reger also recommended the addition of four new positions, bringing the professional overage to just 0.20.
Reger also recommended eliminating 18 service personnel positions either through attrition, retirement, reductions or transfers. One service position would be added to bring the overage to 0.499.
One of those reductions is of five transportation aides by delivering services through extracurricular contracts.
Debbie Groggs, one of five transportation aides who requested a hearing, told the board, “For over 30 years, Upshur County Schools has considered the duties of transportation aides on special needs buses to be an essential part of the educational process. The continuity of having the same person dealing with the students both morning and afternoon was considered important by both a former state superintendent of schools and the 2016 legislature.
“We chose to be transportation aides, and have stated as such, because we have a concern for our students. We know these children as if they were our own. We can tell you when they are getting sick; we’ve been with some of these children since they started school.”
During her hearing, Paula Snyder, a special education aide at Union Elementary School, said she builds relationships with at-risk students in the school system.
“These are the students whose voices are silenced by poverty, drugs and lack of family interest, disabilities or fear of abuse,” she said.
After sharing some examples of students she works with, Snyder said, “Students like in the examples I gave you are the ones who are losing when you remove aides like myself who take their job to heart. They lose a friend, a mentor and a guardian. I and many other aides in this school system are the only consistent people these children have in their lives, and to remove us may cause for regression and a sense of no hope.”
After Snyder learned she may be transferred because of the decrease of students requiring special education assistance, Snyder said she did her own research.
She cited statistics for students who will need intensive intervention next year in the various grades at Union.
She also pointed out that where Union used to be known as the elite school of Upshur County, it now is the second in the county for Title 1 money.
“Not only do we have 75 percent of our students qualifying for free and reduced lunches but also 26 percent of our students have been identified as homeless,” she said. “I know that numbers have to be looked at, but please understand that we are not talking numbers but children’s lives. We can’t sacrifice lives of our children to make our numbers look good.”
Whereas Snyder and the group of transportation aides agreed to have their transfer hearings in open session, a third hearing for the termination of a special education teacher was held in closed session.
After the meeting, Wager said, “Even though we have an excess levy in Upshur County, what we discovered is that our revenue coming in through the taxes and the excess levy taxes is going to be about $250,000 short from what is estimated.
“That is just one of many cuts we have taken this year. We had the 1 percent cut from the state earlier this year, which was about $160,000. Then the amount of Medicaid money we are getting from the federal government has dropped to about $150,000 from $800,000, so we have to make cuts some way in order to keep our county from going into a large deficit.”
“We look at each individual school, the number of students, the number of personnel, and then we determine if there can be any cuts made and where we may have to make additions.”
If the numbers go back up in the fall, Wager stressed that the school system will not leave programs without teachers and without service personnel.
“We could have more retirements that come in and that will save some of these positions, so we can rescind their transfers or rescind their terminations.”
The board met in executive session for about half an hour, at one point calling in board attorney Howard Seufer Jr. from Bowles and Rice LLP.
Following the executive session, the board voted to approve the terminations through reduction in force and the transfers with board president Dr. Tammy Samples voting no to both motions. The motions passed 4-1 on each, with Dr. Greenbrier Almond, Alan Suder, Katie Loudin and Carl ‘Robbie’ Martin voting in favor the personnel changes.
Samples said she could not vote yes to the whole list for either the terminations or the transfers.
“In a couple of the instances, when you vote as a group — the whole list — I am not sure. I am sure it is best fiscally, but I am on the fence as to whether it is best for students,” she said. “Because of my education background, I have to consider both.”
Martin said the board did what they had to do.
“I didn’t particularly like what we did this evening, but I felt like it was something we had to do,” he said. “With the laws that we have in place currently, we were basically forced to do it.”
Reger said the rest of the positions who did not request a hearing will be on the board agenda Tuesday. Seven professional personnel and 13 service personnel are up for termination while six professional employees and nine service employees are up for transfer.
The board of education meets for its regular meeting Tuesday, Feb. 28 at Buckhannon Academy Elementary School at 6 p.m.
The meeting is starting at 6 p.m. for the first of two required public hearings on the proposed calendar for the 2017-2018 school year.
The full list of personnel changes will be published in a future issue.