School District's flurry of pink slips may not be so intense this year

Jody Cooper, technology and testing director for the Quincy School District, is retiring at the end of June and the district plans to eliminate her position and split duties among other employees. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)
Posted: Mar. 18, 2013 10:32 am Updated: Apr. 1, 2013 12:15 pm

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

The Quincy School Board's March meeting is typically full of nervous tension.

That's because the board over the years has used that meeting to announce some major layoffs, or "reductions in force," as a way to trim costs in the coming year.

In 2012, the board announced $1.5 million in budget cuts impacting 66 employees -- some of whom lost their jobs altogether while others were affected by reduced pay or stipends for performing extra work.

In 2011, the board eliminated 31 positions to save between $1.7 million and $1.8 million. Those cuts affected 12 certified positions and 19 classified positions.

This year, it's a little different story.

Thanks to those two straight years of budget reductions and the adoption of a state-ordered deficit-reduction plan, the board entered the fiscal 2013 with a balanced budget. And thanks to the voter-approved passage of a $6.2 million working cash bond issue a year ago, the district no longer has a $2.2 million deficit in the education fund, enabling the district to be taken off the state's financial watch list.

Also, for the first time in several years, the district won't have to take out a line of credit this spring to ease any cash-flow concerns if the state is late in making reimbursement payments because of revenue generated by the working cash bonds,

That doesn't mean the district's financial picture is entirely rosy. School officials say the district is facing an estimated $1 million reduction in state revenue in fiscal 2014. But despite that drop, the School Board is not expected to issue a blizzard of pink slips.

Instead, the board plans to handle the anticipated revenue reduction by adjusting its staffing levels primarily through "normal attrition," said Joel Murphy, the district's business manager and interim superintendent.

"Any reduction (in state revenue) is going to hurt us," Murphy said. "But at this point, we're not looking necessarily at staff reductions, per se. We have a number of retirees and people who are leaving the district, and we're looking at being judicious as far as filling positions and looking at what positions we could shift around."

Losing at least 41 people

Christie Dickens, assistant superintendent for administrative services, said the district this year will be losing at least 41 people.

She said 21 certified staff have announced plans to retire and 10 more have announced plans to resign. Meanwhile, 10 other classified employees are either retiring or resigning.

Stephanie Erwin, the School Board's Finance Committee chairman, said the district's financial situation is stronger because of the belt-tightening efforts and passage of the working cash bond issue.

"We have done really well and come a long way in a year," he said.

She said the recent revelation that the district might be losing $1 million more in state revenue next year came as "a blow" to the district's financial ledger.

"We take one step forward and two steps back," she said.

Still, Erwin feels the district will be able to weather this latest storm without having to issue many layoff notices this month. She said some of the higher-paid positions being vacated will not be replaced or will be filled with people earning lower salaries.

"We're not looking to replace everyone that's retiring," Erwin said. "Some will be replaced, some won't. Some positions will be consolidated."

Erwin said the board is also looking at the possibility of reorganizing duties among certain administrative personnel in the district's central office.

Those central office moves are being considered now, Erwin said, because the office is already going to be facing a changeover in the district's top three positions -- superintendent and the two assistant superintendent posts currently held by Dickens, who is retiring, and Trish Sullivan-Viniard, who is leaving to take a superintendent's job in LaGrange.

Steven Cobb is slated to begin work as Quincy's superintendent by July 1, if not sooner. He will fill the spot vacated last year by Lonny Lemon.

"We want to have that (restructuring) in place before Steve comes," Erwin said. A proposal to reorganize the central office is on the agenda for Wednesday's School Board meeting.

Murphy said the district will be issuing some layoff notices this month to employees whose positions are being eliminated "for economic reasons."

Some of those notices are being issued because the district doesn't know yet it if will continue to receive grants to fund certain positions. As a precaution, the district routinely issues layoff notices in March knowing many of the people receiving those notices will likely be called back once grant funding is confirmed.

No retirement bonuses

Erwin acknowledged that the number of teachers retiring this year might be higher than usual because the board in September declared its intent to abolish the practice of giving certain employees pre-retirement bonuses that provide 6 percent raises each of their last two or three years as a way to accelerate pension benefits.

The board passed a resolution spelling out its intention to open talks with employee unions with the goal of eliminating these special contract provisions before July 1.

"We just can't do that anymore (give pre-retirement bonuses)," Erwin said. "I know teachers did not like that -- especially veteran teachers. But that was a long-term, thinking-ahead decision."

Erwin and Murphy said the district is committed to sticking with the deficit-reduction plan it adopted in late 2011. The plan requires the district to have another balanced budget for 2014.

Murphy said the infusion of revenue from the sale of working cash bonds can't be viewed as a new money source available for spending. "It's basically a savings account. Just because the money is there doesn't mean we can go off and spend it," he said.

Murphy said the financial picture facing the Quincy School District has definitely improved, but the future remains unclear because of concerns that the Illinois Legislature could heap more financial pressure onto the shoulders of school districts -- especially if it forces districts to take on more of the burden for teacher pension costs.

"I think we're in a better position than we've been in the past, but we're still very cautious about moving forward,"