CCS weighs personnel options

In 2009-10, Catawba County Schools reduced positions for 69 teachers, 113 teacher assistants, four custodians and three literary coaches.

With North Carolina facing a more than $3 billion budget shortfall, CCS leaders face yet another year of difficult budget decisions — including personnel cuts and reductions.

CCS Board of Eduction met Monday to discuss its budgetary options for fiscal year 2011-12, and Pat Hensley, CCS assistant superintendent of human resources, presented several options Monday to board members for reducing personnel costs without completely eliminating positions.

"We're looking for how we can do what we have to do, and do it in the best way possible," Hensley said.

One option is reducing or eliminating employee overtime. Overtime costs in 2009-10 were about $350,000.

Hensley said most overtime at CCS comes from the system's dual employees, such as teacher assistants or child nutrition workers who also drive buses for the school district. Of the system's 194 bus driver positions, 29 work only as a bus driver. Thirty-one child nutrition workers drive buses, and 134 bus drivers also serve as teacher assistants.

"I really think maybe this coming year, we're going to have to move forward and look at more bus-driver-only positions," said interim superintendent Glenn Barger.

That option reduces the number of hours worked from multiple duties in the school system, but it also reduces the amount of pay to dual employees.

Teacher assistants who drive buses must also reduce their hours in the classroom to accommodate their bus-driving duties. And in light of recent teacher assistant cuts, teacher assistants' time in the classroom is already strained.

"With the scarcity of teacher assistants we have because of the reduction, that TA's time is going to be very precious," Barger said.

The decision to staff CCS with more employees who only drive buses also decreases personnel and benefits costs to the child nutrition program, which is a self-sustaining operation within the school system.

CCS' Child Nutrition program typically doesn't receive any funding from the system, but it faces its own dilemmas, with costs increasing and revenue declining.

"The revenue stream hasn't kept up with the expense," said Steve Demiter, CCS assistant superintendent of operations.

Reduced expenditures in the Child Nutrition program allow officials to potentially avoid an increase in the price of school lunches.

Hensley said other possible ways to reduce overtime costs include expanding the system's fleet busing, which uses fewer buses to transport elementary, middle and high school students within the same feeder districts, instead of using different buses for each school.

Demiter estimated the system could save 7-10 yellow buses by starting a fleet bus system, but that change couldn't take effect immediately.

"If you were going to tell us today (to make the change), we couldn't fully implement it by next school year," Demiter said. "I see it as an ongoing process."

Schools within the district who don't already have fleet busing will have to change school release schedules to accommodate students from all grades.

Board members also investigated a recent study by schools in Wilkes County, where the system reduced its terms of employment during a two-year experiment.

Students in Wilkes County went to school for 162 days a year, instead of the mandated 180-day school year. School days, however, were longer than normal.

"Their students actually receive more hours of instruction on this model than they were before ... but it's in fewer days," Barger said.

Hensley said the state mandates students attend school for 1,000 hours of instruction and 180 days. Wilkes County will present its findings with the fewer-school-day model to the General Assembly.

Barger said Wilkes County's first-year test data showed no impact from the non-traditional school day, but board members agreed one year isn't enough time to study long-term effects of a longer school day.

Board member Sherry Butler expressed concerned about students' ability to stay focused during longer sessions in the classroom. CCS board chairwoman Joyce Spencer also was concerned about teachers' effectiveness remaining high during a long school day.