Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Metro schools try to avoid layoffs

By Jaime Sarrio • THE TENNESSEAN • November 26, 2008 The weak economy has been aggravating government agencies for months, but Metro Nashville schools are only now beginning to feel the pinch. The school board met Tuesday to discuss how to cut $11.1 million from its current budget to cope with a lagging sales tax revenue stream that shows no signs of picking up. This is after the district this week began a hiring freeze and ordered a stop to overtime pay, except for emergencies. Board members said they want to avoid laying off employees or reducing the quality of student services, but in a district where the work force makes up 85 percent of costs, it is not clear how those goals will be achieved. "Laying off people would be the last resort," said Chris Henson, interim director of schools. "We're talking about people's livelihood." Heavy-handed alternatives such as dipping into the district's savings account, trimming operations or implementing pay reductions for employees are being considered, though each carries consequences. Using the reserve funds to get through this year would set the district up for trouble in future years if sales tax collections continue to dip. Reducing costs would require the district to trim services at a time when it is trying to do more to improve test scores and climb out from under state control. The hiring freezes do not affect essential teaching and principal positions, which are protected by state law. But the district could increase class sizes in some places so fewer teachers would be needed. Cutting some employee salaries would have to be negotiated with the teachers union, whose members oppose the measure. "I don't see how the board would have any success recruiting teachers if we reduce teacher salaries," said Erick Huth, president of the Metro Nashville Education Association, which represents Nashville teachers. "Employee morale is already so low, to reduce salaries would be devastating." Board faces shortfall Board members will meet next Monday to firm up plans to deal with the revenue shortfall. They expect to have a decision as soon as mid-December, said Steve Glover, chairman of the finance committee. Nashville schools have largely been spared suffering from the lagging economy while school districts across the country, and higher education programs in Tennessee, have made bold cuts to cope with less revenue. This summer, Mayor Karl Dean required all Metro departments to make cuts except schools and public safety. The district was allowed to remove some money from reserves to make improvements. But a large portion of the district's revenue comes from sales tax dollars, and people are spending less than projected. That means the district, and other departments, budgeted for more money than they will collect.

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