Board discusses proposals

Kyrene school board on Jan. 8 discussed three cost-cutting measures that include a different starting and ending time for some campuses.

The Kyrene governing board will meet Tuesday, Jan. 22, to vote on three major cost-cutting measures that the administration this week tweaked to make them more palatable to parents and district employees.

During a special meeting on Jan. 15, the board heard revisions that were proposed to measures initially aimed at paring $2.5 million in spending for the 2019-20 district budget so that more money could be put into classrooms.

Thee decisions – while providing a financial lifeline for Kyrene, which has a current surplus of a mere $4,600 in its current $121-million budget – initially posed major implications for the lives and pocketbooks of parents, middle school teachers and an estimated 222 district employees.

Now, they've been adjusted to ease their impact.

For parents, the new proposal on the so-called bell schedule that governs the beginning and ending of the school day, the administration now proposed that no campus would see an earlier start than 7:35 a.m. Initially, a number of Ahwatukee schools were slated for a 7:20 a.m. start. No school would dismiss students any later than 4 p.m. under the new proposal.

The change means that instead of saving $1.2 million, the district now projects a savings of $700,000.

Another tweak involved reducing a discount all district employees receive if they use before- and after-school programs for their children while they are at work.

Instead of reducing the discount from 75 percent to 20 percent, the district administration is now proposing a reduction to 45 percent of the fee parents who are not employees pay for those programs.

The district said it cost taxpayers $400,000 for the 75 percent discount and said the new proposed 45 percent discount is "cost neutral."

During the Jan. 8 meeting, several board members expressed concern about the impact of the three measures the way they were initially proposed.

“I look at three things that are going to be disruptive,” said board Vice President Kevin Walsh, one of two new board members.

“If you're a teacher in middle school, staffing is going to be disruptive. If you're a teacher, employee discount could be disruptive. If you're a parent, bell schedule is going to be disrupted if you're a parent, any teacher or staff member, which many families in our district are. That's a triple whammy,” he said.

Board member Michelle Fahy seem taken aback by both the breadth of the proposals and asked that the board meet prior to Jan. 22 to discuss them.

“There's a lot of emotion around each of these three things,” Fahy said, noting “this is the first opportunity that we as a board have really had an opportunity to discuss it” and stating, “I am more concerned about making the best decision and not the fastest decision.”

The board needs to decide these three proposals as one of the first steps toward developing the whole budget, which must be approved by July 15.

One proposal – which would cut about $1 million in spending – would reduce the middle school teacher’s daily planning time by adding seven minutes to classroom periods, which are now 51 to 56 minutes long. It would also mean that a number of middle school teachers would be taking on an additional 30 students to the 120 they now see in a day, though individual class size would not be affected.

It is not clear if this proposal has been modified.

The bell schedule would have stagger the start and finish times for classes across the district’s 25 campuses. Essentially, the school day would have  begun and end later at all the middle and elementary schools in Ahwatukee and begin as early as 7:20 a.m. for the schools in Tempe and Chandler.

The cost reductions would help underwrite some of the 12 priorities for the coming school year that have been identified through consultations between the administration and parent groups, teachers and community leaders that include the private business sector.

Those five stakeholder groups conferred with the administration on both the cost-cutting proposals and about a dozen new spending priorities for the coming year, Chief Financial Officer Chris Hermann said.

While those dozen priorities include things like uniformed police in all six middle schools, dyslexia training and someone to oversee equity in personnel and student matters, reaction from the stakeholder groups settled on three top plans, Hermann said.

They are a redesigned elementary school program, increased intervention for students doing poorly in math and reading and an initiative aimed at helping students develop self-sufficiency and personal responsibility.

Board members varied in their reaction to the cost-cutting measures, and some flatly came out against some of them.

John King zeroed in on the proposed 7:20 a.m. start time for some elementary schools – a move up of almost a half hour.

“I wasn't real supportive of the 7:20 start time before and I’m still not,” King told administrators who presented the plan. “I think it's too early.  I know you're still doing some evaluations on this, but that's one that…you should probably take a look at.”

The change – which would take effect next school year if the governing board approves – not only would save $1.2 million but would also give bus drivers more hours, increasing the attractiveness of jobs that Kyrene and many other school districts have been having trouble filling for various reasons.

But it also would force households – and at least some teachers with second jobs – to rearrange their own lives.

Parents would have to find ways to accommodate after-school and other activities and those who have special-needs children have been posting their concerns on social media about the difficulty that later ending-times would impose. They said most therapists don’t work past 5 p.m. so having classes end as late as 3:55 p.m. could make it difficult to schedule appointments.

For other parents, earlier dismissals would create day-care problems while they’re at work.

And while the district has said it would expand after-school Community Education programs for those children, Hermann told the board: “Changing the bell times absolutely is not intended to generate more revenue dollars by expanding our community education programs.”

“Although it is possible that earlier or later start times at individual schools might result in program changes for families, the district is currently looking at ways to fund programs at costs that are in the most effective manner for families and try to minimize any possible financial, financial impact for families,” he added.

Reductions in the fee discounts that Kyrene employees get for putting their kids in before- and after-school programs run by the district were first raised last fall and generated emotional pleas from workers at a number of board meetings.

Workers, many of them single parents, told the board that eliminating their 75 percent discounts would impose almost impossible financial burdens on their households.

To some degree, however, the IRS already has imposed a burden on them by declaring that any discount over 20 percent will now be considered income. That possibly could mean they’d be paying more income tax.

Hermann told the board those discounts are costing taxpayers more than $400,000, but some board members expressed concern for the hardship that reducing them would have on the affected employees.

The district is proposing three different options on reducing the discounts and some would take into account the worker’s annual income.

Moreover, board members also expressed concern that employees with spouses who work might be getting a 75 percent fee discount that they neither need nor deserve.

“We have to be very careful about using our taxpayers’ money for all students to benefit the families of 10 percent of our employees,” Fahy said. “I think we have to find a way where we are at least at the very minimum cost neutral and not eating money…I think we really have to look very carefully at how we evaluate who does and doesn't need this.”

Walsh said it was important that district officials communicate to Kyrene parents and taxpayers that the cost-cutting measures are aimed at generating money that will be put back into the classroom.

He did express concern about the impact of the middle school staffing revisions, stating:

“If I'm a middle school teacher, my planning period time is going down and the number of students that I'm going to have interactions with every week is going up.”

“I'm glad that we're finding ways to be more efficient and I'm looking forward to the presentations are going to have in the coming weeks about how we're going to take that money and put it back into the classroom and put it into our teachers’ paychecks right now,” Walsh said.

 But he also expressed concern that middle teachers not be swamped with too much additional work. “I know that a lot of them work hours that they never record and they never get reimbursed for,” he said.

King expressed concerns that some of the board’s requests to mitigate the impact of some of the three cost-cutting proposals also would be reducing the amount of money Kyrene has for any new programs.

“I don’t know where this is going to end up,” said King. Noting the budget process “is never easy,” King also praised the administration for zeroing in the way it did.

“There's a very clear path that has been set tonight and it's going to be easy to look at three things rather than 45 things,” King added.

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