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St. Louis schools consider even more cuts

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 14, 2009 - St. Louis School Superintendent Kelvin Adams delivered more bad news Thursday night by suggesting that the district could cut costs by reducing salaries, retirement contributions, health benefits and work days.

He didn’t suggest that the board pursue any of these options, but he put them on the table as potential ways the district could pare expenses.

His preferred choices for trimming $53 million from the district's budget included the already announced plans of closing 14 buildings, eliminating nearly 300 positions, including substitute teachers, clerical staffers, social workers and school nurses, along with spending less money for school supplies.

The board intends to get public comments before acting on Adams’ recommendations. The superintendent’s grim news came as he explained that the district expected revenue for the next fiscal year to be down by $17 million, to $289 million, due to several factors, including a projected enrollment decrease of about 950 students. At the same time, he projected that enrollment for charter schools is expected to rise by about 10 percent.

Even with his proposed cuts, Adams assured the board that the system would have adequate staff to run the system.

“We’ve reduced schools by about 14 percent to 15 percent and the staff level by about 10 percent,” he said, adding that the proposed reductions were “in line with the actual number of students and buildings we have.”

He added: “There are options out there for the board. Some of the options are to decrease health benefits, going back to the public for more dollars. Some of the others are taking 10 percent off salaries.”

Adams said the shutdown of 14 school buildings would save the district more than $12 million, but the largest savings -- more than $20 million -- would come from salaries, including trimming $4.5 from the use of substitute teachers. He proposes to save nearly $5 million from school supplies. In addition, he suggested that the district could take $8.5 million from special education programs and replace that loss with federal stimulus money. These savings add up to the $53 million.

Mary J. Armstrong, president of St. Louis Teachers Union local 420, argued against reducing nurses, social workers and other support staff that Adams said were being let go in relation to reductions in buildings and projected enrollment.

“These staff members help us do our jobs,” Armstrong said, adding that the district could close the deficit by other ways. She suggested that officials consider ending a $7 million a year repayment of desegregation money that the district  borrowed during the time the system was run by Bill Roberti.

Armstrong also suggested that the board seek a waiver to tap into a fund set aside to build new schools in the city in the event students attending county schools under the city-county desegregation program return to city schools. 

“Why not use that money to defray lots of expenditures that we currently have? Why not use some of that money to fix up buildings that we currently use?” she said.

She said Adams has a mandate to balance the budget. “The only way he can do that is by cutting personnel. But this is hurting the quality of education. You cannot keep cutting programs in order to balance the budget.”

She noted that the district hadn’t sought a tax increase this decade, but she said asking for an increase might be futile because many voters who would be asked to raise their taxes don’t have children in the system.

Adams didn’t say how much money the district would save through the additional options of salary reductions, cutting contributions to retirement, cutting health care costs or reducing the number of workdays. But he suggested the board could look at those options and decide by the first board meeting next month.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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