Painful reality

Published 11:25 am Monday, April 17, 2017

WINDSOR—Feeling they had exhausted all other options, and leaving themselves in what one school board member called a “condition of extreme despair”, the Bertie County Board of Education voted for a Reduction in Force (RIF) for Bertie County Schools on Tuesday evening at the school board’s April monthly meeting.

About 21 classified employees in the district (clerks, janitorial staffers, teaching assistants, etc.) will be terminated immediately. However, the board said certified employees (teachers, principals, etc.) will not face elimination before the end of the school year. By that time, the total reduction in force would total 28.5 positions.

School board chair Bobby Occena said in a press release on Thursday the Board of Education only considered a RIF after review of all alternatives to financial solvency in its mandated option to reduce the schools’ current budget deficits and meet the $1.4 million two-year loss from projected state and federal cuts anticipated for next year’s budget.

“Sadly, it’s not as (bad) on teachers and other certified employees as it will be on our classified workforce,” Occena said. “We’re trying to lessen the impact, maybe even get some positions back through retirement and attrition. Many will be notified ahead of time, and we may not cut that many.”

The monetary saving to the district, based on average salary, is expected to be over $200,000.

The school board must appropriate nearly $705,000 in the current year to try and cure its deficit from 2015-16. Bertie County Schools Superintendent Dr. Steven Hill says the district can find that amount in expenditures and taxes not returned to the state, and in-kind funding.

Where the problem arose was in reducing the operating deficit of $828,379 the Board of Education had to find. If not resolved, this is what will likely violate state law in the current fiscal year for which a balanced budget is required.

For 2017-18, the board has to make up the projected deficit of $1.79 million, knowing it is facing state and federal cuts of $1.43 million and a reduction in funding of $360,000 due to charter school payments.

“That’s money we’ve got to find,” Hill told the Bertie County Commissioners earlier this month. “You’re looking at some counties that have to find millions of dollars. We want to go ahead and pay (the federal side), clean them off the books, and make sure everything is audited free.”

The current projected $828,379 carry-over deficit and the required payments to the charter school program forced a larger reduction in force than would otherwise have been necessary.

With the anticipated acceptance of a Department of Public Instruction multiple-year deficit reduction plan, the school board has limited the RIF’s impact to the best extent possible.

School board members expressed in their statement that the RIF impacts many for this one year due to limited information provided by past administrations and the failure to match positions with the level of local, state and federal funding.

Board Chair Bobby Occena said, “The previous superintendent (Elaine White) suggested a reduction in force several times, but never recommended it to the Board, due to the belief that attrition would meet the need,” Occena said. “The interim superintendent (Dr. Julius Walker, who served after White’s retirement and prior to Hill’s appointment) received similar information and we later found a RIF to be necessary.”

“At one point the board was informed by employees that there was a reduction in months communicated to them, but this was rebutted by the previous administration when questioned,” said board vice-chairman Barry McGlone.

Occena also questioned the responsibility of the past auditors and the certification process by the Local Government Commission. The board contracted a separate auditor and led an extensive audit process most recently to determine the best course of action.

“The current Board of Education has implemented this RIF to take swift action to tackle the past carry-over deficit and current budget cut challenges,” Occena said. “With this RIF, the board feels it has removed personnel believed to be counter-productive to the financial stability of the district.”

The school board stated the appointment in December of a fulltime superintendent is tasked with rectifying the budget situation and to provide an accurate and sustainable financial process for the district.

The Board of Education also hired an experienced finance officer in February to bridge past budget discrepancies and to ensure that all accurate financial processes are incorporated within the system. A primary mandate by the school board is for the new finance officer to provide a transparent, monthly financial report.

“It is with a sincere heart that I apologize to the students, staff, and citizens of this county for the financial deficit that has affected Bertie County Public Schools,” said board member Tarsha Dudley in the news release. “It is imperative, as a seated board member, that I continue to ask the necessary questions and probe harder prior to making decisions in order to ensure that this financial situation does not happen again.”

The entire school board expressed deep regret for the need for a RIF.

Efforts to establish a resource fair for affected employees are being completed by the school system’s human resource department, including provision of yearlong insurance, unemployment payment information, job application preparation, and other resources.

“The Board will assist affected employees in any way possible,” added Occena.