Columbus teacher jobs on the line

February 25, 2010 9:06:00 AM

Jason Browne - [email protected]


Columbus Municipal School District''s payroll could be 50 employees lighter this April. 


Superintendent Dr. Del Phillips said this week that up to 50 employees, including teachers and support staff, could be released to help weather an anticipated 12-15 percent cut in state funding.  


State law mandates districts notify certified teachers by April 15 if their contracts will not be renewed for the following school year. If the budget isn''t released by April 15, districts will have 10 days from the date of its release to announce non-renewals.  


Neither Lowndes County nor Starkville schools anticipate cutting teachers. West Point and Oktibbeha County superintendents were unavailable for comment. 


Phillips says CMSD will cut teachers as a last resort, preferring to leave vacated positions unfilled. 


"Some of those jobs will be where people are retiring, some where people leave on their own. We''ve been reducing staff by attrition for the past two years," he said. 


However, in an effort to trim up to $3 million from its 2010-2011 budget, up to 25 teachers could get the ax. 


Phillips says his principals will make the call on which teachers'' contracts won''t be renewed, just as supervisors will decide which support staff to release. He says no policy is in place to cut teachers based on tenure. 


Lowndes County Superintendent Mike Halford has been preparing his district for cuts since January 2009 when Gov. Haley Barbour addressed a conference of school superintendents from across the state warning of possible 10-15 percent cuts to education. 


"We took the governor''s words very serious and we made cuts in anticipation," said Halford, who believes Barbour receives unfair blame for the cuts. "Those of us that made these cuts are not hurt as bad as those who said, ''Oh, well. The Legislature is going to fully fund us.''" 




Making cuts 


Lowndes County began cutting its budget last school year through attrition, freezing purchases on buses and district vehicles and switching its alternative school students from Starkville to Columbus. 


Busing its alternative students to the Quad County Alternative School in the Starkville School District required the Lowndes County bus to drive 160 miles a day from its central location. Halford predicts the combined costs of gasoline, maintenance and driver salaries cost his district $5 per mile. He says the switch to the Columbus alternative school likely saved his district $1,200 per alternative student each year. Phillips says the arrangement also saves CMSD several hundred-thousand dollars each year. 




Administrator pay 


The SSD plans to renegotiate with each of its administrators to cut five working days from their contracts. Starkville Superintendent Judy Couey says the district is also considering eliminating non-contract supplements. 


"If somebody gets paid $300 per grade to do inventory, that can be assigned as a duty now and the person will be given the time needed to work on that," said Couey. 


Both Halford and Couey say certified teachers will be the last to go as their districts look to cut costs. 


"We''re trying to protect classrooms first," said Halford. "If we need 350 teachers, we''re going to try to protect 350 teachers. That''s our first obligation. 




Preserving instructional staff 


Halford estimates every $50,000 saved equates to one teacher''s job. And in the struggle to preserve teachers, "nothing is sacred," including athletics, field trips and other extracurricular programs.  


A reduction in days for administrators is not out of the question at Lowndes County schools, but Halford is wary of asking employees to perform the same amount of work in less time. 


"I''ve learned over the years that when you reduce days or salaries with the same job responsibilities, you''re just going to have disgruntled employees," he said. 




Less workdays 


Phillips says Columbus administrators, counselors and coaches have all renegotiated their contracts to accept a reduction in pay and a proportional reduction in days. 


Couey believes state districts could manage their budgets more effectively if not for certain state requirements. 


"The biggest thing is districts don''t have control over local supplements or professional development days. If we could work with those we could pretty much manage these budgets," she said. 


Local supplements are offered to attract teachers to a given school district. Legally, they cannot be lowered at the district level. 


The local supplement for new teachers in Columbus and Lowndes County with only a bachelor''s degree is $1,500. The supplement rises each year for 25 years, topping out at $3,350. 


Starkville supplements start at $1,750. 


Local supplements are higher for teachers holding graduate-level degrees. 


Districts provide teachers seven professional development days each year to attend classes or seminars which are often off-campus. 


"We could easily provide professional development for teachers (on-campus) and make their contract three days shorter. If we could get three days, that would provide a lot of savings in salary," said Couey. 


Professional development days are opportunities for certified teachers to receive training or continuing education units that count toward their recertification.