The Letcher County Board of Education has agreed to “put at rest” the idea of cutting employee health insurance and life insurance from next year’s district operating budget.
“I got to looking over these and employees work so hard and we’re going to be asking more and more out of them,” Board Member Will Smith said during a meeting of the board Monday night. “There’s no way that I can vote for these cuts here and as far as I’m concerned we don’t need to bring them up to vote on them tonight. I don’t see them on the agenda. This is benefits for our employees.”
The board still did not give any direction to the district’s finance department as to what areas of the budget might be trimmed, and instead scheduled a “work session” at 6 p.m. on April 29. School board attorney Darrell Hall said the specialcalled meeting will be closed to the public because the board members will be discussing personnel issues which he says are intertwined with the budget.
The meeting held Monday at the school bus garage in West Whites- burg drew a full house with the anticipation that the board would decide which items to cut from the budget .
Speculation stemmed from a district budget committee meeting that took place on March 28 at which point the 15 people in attendance were asked to rank items to consider for reduction from one to 10, with 10 being the item they want to see cut the least. The items on the list totaled $1.079 million.
The list includes health insurance ($263,000), reduction of one personal day ($30,000), life insurance ($7,488), eliminate preschool transportation ($55,000), suspend Alternative Education ($240,000), nurses’ contract with the health department ($40,000), reduction in 24- hour security at Letcher County Central High School ($64,000), school buses ($200,000), one school resource officer ($30,000) and central office reduction ($150,000).
Regina Brown, president of the Letcher County Teachers’ Organization, told the board she attended the budget meeting and reported to LCTO members about the 10 items that were considered for funding cuts.
“I did attend the budget meeting as did a few other people in this room and we ranked these items based on what we felt was the most important for saving and not cutting,” said Brown “I shared that with my members. It was an open meeting. I felt that I needed to share that with my members as they are elected representatives.”
Board Member Terry Cornett said the list of items was never was presented to the board.
“I found out about it through the newspaper,” said Cornett. “That’s something that I feel needs to come to the board. We need to hear about that in here before it gets to the press or anywhere else.”
Roger Martin, district director of finance, agreed with Cornett.
“That was definitely what I have done in the past,” said Martin. “I never gave it to the press. Mr. (Brian) Johnson (district finance director) never gave it to the press. He had it in his desk drawer for that meeting only. I agree with you 100 percent that it was our complete intention. It needed to come to the board first.”
Martin acknowledged that the budget committee meeting was open to the public. “Committee meetings are open meetings and you can’t really control what folks do,” said Martin.
Board Member Dr. Sam Quillen Jr. said he got a sack full of mail before the board meeting from school employees expressing concern about losing benefits. Other board members also received letters and phone calls in support of keeping certain employee benefits.
Board Chairman Robert Kiser said most of the letters he received from employees expressed their desire that the board continue funding health insurance, that it not cut one personal day, and that it continue funding life insurance, alternative education, nurses in the schools and preschool transportation.
“That’s six of the items on the list,” said Kiser. “It’s about the same way throughout these letters. And I agree. That’s pretty much stuff that I don’t see that we need to cut. The way we have all talked about it, we’re going to have to find money somewhere for textbooks, but health insurance is one of those things I think short of closing our schools down we don’t cut that.”
Kiser also singled out life insurance premiums for employees as one area he doesn’t want to see funds taken from.
“I think we are all in agreement with that,” said Board Member Mendy Boggs. “I mean I could never cut (health insurance). I know the board would never do anything like that. It’s hard to consider something like that when you see teachers every day and your classified staff every day. They deal with these children. They do such a great job. It would be ridiculous to even consider cutting that. I know that was never proposed.”
Cornett also said he doesn’t want to cut funding that would hurt the district’s employees.
“I think we need to look at other options when we get to that point,” said Cornett. “I don’t think we are there right now. Maybe down the road we can look at this. I think right now we just kind of need to let it rest.”
Smith agreed that employee benefits should be left alone for now.
“As hard as they work, we’ve given them a little one-percent raise the last five or six years,” said Smith. “There is no way we can take any of these benefits away from our employees.”
Supt. Anna Craft told the board that all of the items on the list that circulated are “sacred to I think about everybody in this room.”
“They were listed and ranked simply because at some point in the future if anyone tried to cut them we knew the ones that we would not want to cut,” said Craft. “And I can tell you that somehow it got misrepresented as it was sent out because I don’t recommend cutting any of that in my position.”
She said she wanted to set the record straight, both for herself and the budget committee.
“I don’t think that committee was recommending those,” said Craft. “We were just saying, ‘You know these are some of the few things you can think of in the future where there could be some cuts but we certainly don’t want to cut any of them.’”
Regina Brown told the board that employees attended the board meeting out of concern over the perceived threat of cuts.
“ They are concerned about a lot of things,” she said. “I came to the last few board meetings and I have expressed the need for textbooks and that costs a lot of money that we don’t have.”
Brown said school employees have not had pay raises in five or six years from the state. “Thanks to you all we had a one percent raise in the fall,” she said. “We know that it is hard times. All of us live in this community and we have people who are not working right now.”
Some employees work solely for their health premiums, said Brown.
“That is a benefit that Ms. Craft and I and former KESPA president worked out a long time ago that we knew that was a hard deal,” she said. “We’re the only ones in the state that does that. Fifty dollars doesn’t sound like much to some people, but to these employees it’s a lot.”
Brown said the only way that she thinks it would be fair to cut insurance benefits would be to give employees a raise that would compensate for it.
“And you all can’t do that this year,” she said. “It’s just not possible. And so I do appreciate that you have brought this up and that you have chosen to put to rest that these items are not on the table for cutting so that our members can rest a little easier tonight and sleep a little better.”
Martin told the board that the district’s tentative budget is due to be sent to the Kentucky Department of Education in May.
“It is my understanding that the board doesn’t want to discuss anything what was ranked from that committee meeting,” said Martin. “We do need a direction from the board to prepare our budget to be approved at the May meeting. You all can offer some direction. We would welcome it. If you don’t, we will go on what we know and go from there.”
Smith asked about scheduling the work session to consider other possible cuts.
“The only way you could actually do something like that is to sit down and look at everything and see if there are any places where we can make some cuts,” said Smith.
“It’s going to have to be a special-called meeting and then you can go into executive session,” said Hall, adding that the board could come out of the closed session and talk about what was discussed during the work session.
“It’s a work session but you can’t take any action,” said Smith. “Most boards do that fairly regular. Most boards do it once a month — have their work sessions.”
Smith requested that Martin, Kenny Cornett, district director of pupil personnel, finance officer and Brian Johnson, district finance director attend the work session.