Public, staff questioning school's administrative costs By David Lias Make a pie chart of the general fund cuts made by the Vermillion School Board in the past four school years, and the smallest slice, totaling approximately $78,000 of over $1 million in reductions, comes from administration.
A quick glance at the affected personnel in the proposed $350,000 in budget cuts that would be necessary next school year, should an upcoming opt-out of the state property tax freeze fail, reveals the proposed cut of two clerical positions, but no reduction in high level administrators.
At a time when the school board has eliminated programs such as the K-9 alternative school, early bird classes, and math, computer, English and foreign language teachers, it�s common to hear a �man-on-the-street� sentiment expressed in the Vermillion community about the administrative costs of the school district.
�In hearing the budget cuts, I don�t believe I heard of a single administrative cut,� Frank Pommersheim told the Vermillion School Board Monday night. �I think all I heard was essentially instructional cuts, and I wonder how that serves the student body.�
No simple answer
It�s a question, Vermillion School Board President Tom Craig said, that is heard often and has no simple answer.
�We�ve discussed that in some detail with the VEA (Vermillion Education Association),� he said. �There have been cuts made on the administrative side early on in this whole process.�
Craig noted there is no longer a full-time assistant principal at the middle school. The assistant principal at the high school was replaced by director of students, who isn�t classified as an administrator, bringing savings to the district.
�We�ve reduced the staff at the central office by one person,� he noted, �and that came out of some of the discussions with the citizens� committee from three years ago.
�I think there�s always discussion as to which way to go on this,� Craig said. �I�m not justifying it; I know the board has discussed
this at length, for over four years now.�
Craig, Nick Merrigan, and Mark Bottolfson are the three longest-serving members on the Vermillion School Board. They�ve witnessed the introduction of new programs to benefit students in the past decade.
Those programs include tech modules, K-9 alternative program, a high school alternative program, the expansion of Austin Elementary so all-day kindergarten could be offered, and expansion of class offerings at the high school, Craig said.
�The entire time that we were adding those programs and expanding opportunities for students, that�s when we were making cuts in the administrative staff,� he said.
�Everybody that we have in administration is, we feel, vital to the district,� Merrigan said.
Unlike some school districts, which have their entire student body attending classes in one or two buildings, the Vermillion district operates four school buildings. The superintendent and other administrative personnel offices are located in downtown building. �That causes us some additional expense that it wouldn�t cause if we had a combination of one elementary school, a junior/senior high school, or a middle/high school concept,� Merrigan said. �I think people need to take that into consideration.�
Merrigan said citizens can get a notion of whether Vermillion�s administrative costs are out of line by comparing the local district to others in the state.
�Our administration costs are by no means out of line with any district in the state,� he said. �I keep hearing people say we have all this fluff. We don�t. We have cut a lot of things that fall onto the principals. We�re adding more responsibilities to the administrators of this district, and we�re cutting support services to do that.
�The administrators have a duty to hire and maintain a top quality staff,� Merrigan said, �which is not easy to do, especially in some specialty areas, such as math and science. To not go vote for this opt-out because you don�t think there�s enough cuts in administration � I think that deserves more study by the voting public.
�We have looked at, we have compared ourselves to other school districts, and we�re in line,� he said.
�I think reasonable people can differ,� Pommersheim said, �about where the impacts should lie. One precept to work with is if you�re going to have cuts, they should fall equally on each part of the overall operation of the school system. It doesn�t look like they are going to fall equally among the different components that deliver services in the district.�
The VEA fears that March�s opt-out election will fail without a greater emphasis on administrative cuts.
Representatives of the association met with the Vermillion School Board in executive session for approximately an hour before the board�s public meeting Monday. Before adjourning, the board went back into closed session to further discuss the VEA�s concerns.
In a letter to Superintendent Mark Froke and school board members, the VEA notes it �is deeply concerned about the erosion in the quality of education the district will be able to offer if cuts are implemented as planned.�
The association also considers it imperative that the board make significant administrative reductions.
The VEA notes that 7.5 teaching positions were lost last year, and another 6.75 FTE cuts are currently proposed.
�Meanwhile, there has been nothing (except some clerical assistance) that even hints of administrative reductions,� the VEA wrote.
The VEA recommends these cost- savings measures:
? Move the administration building to one of the district-owned buildings. �We understand this is a capital outlay expenditure,� the association wrote, �but there are several advantages: it would be viewed positively by the public; it would maintain an administrative presence in each building; it could facilitate sharing of clerical of personnel.�
? Reduce or combine the positions of curriculum director, special education director and a principal or assistant principal into 2.0 FTE (full time equivalents). This implies no vendetta against any individual, but provides a statement to community and staff that the administration is willing to do its part in belt-tightening, the VEA wrote.
? Eliminate the position of building and grounds director.
? Reduce the business manager to 0.6 FTE.
? Eliminate the full family health and dental benefits to all recipients. �Sioux Falls school administrators receive the same medical package as staff,� stated the VEA.
The association wrote that these suggestions would result in substantial savings to the district, and would not adversely affect students.
�Conversely, VEA is incredulous that Title funds earmarked for Targeted Assistance to needy students could be shifted to replace part of an administrator�s salary cut,� the letter stated.
The VEA�s letter wasn�t entirely critical.The organization notes it sees some merit in proposed co-curricular cuts, and the reduction in the number of middle school football and boys� and girls� basketball games. It, in fact, suggests eliminating all middle school sports instead of reducing a librarian or English teacher position.
�We had excellent dialogue with them and we really appreciated being to discuss that. There�s nothing wrong about having opposing viewpoints and having dialogue about different things, and that�s exactly what we had Monday night before the regular meeting started,� Gary Culver, president of the VEA, said. �We had an opportunity to give our opinion.�
The VEA agrees with the board�s elimination of free passes for staff to attend athletic contests, and concurs with the district-wide 20 percent cuts in music and P.E. because of fewer elementary students.
The association believes that all extended contracts should be eliminated. It also believes the school district should stop standardized testing in the second grade, and should eliminate all other non-required testing.
�VEA hopes the board will respond to public and educational community concerns in attempting to balance the needs of students with the dismal realities of the district budget,� the association wrote.