PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. - Employee layoffs are almost surely coming in the Palm Beach County School District, even as its leaders are debating whether to give raises to teachers and others remaining on the payroll.
The School Board and new acting Superintendent Bill Malone on Wednesday began contemplating the impact of a projected $63 million to $113 million budget shortfall for the 2011-12 school year.
"The driving force to date has been to do everything possible to avoid layoffs," Chief Financial Officer Michael Burke told board members. "That's probably no longer an attainable goal."
Board Vice Chairwoman Debra Robinson issued a strongly worded warning to district employees: "Everything's up in the air," she said. "If you see a better offer you better take it. Things are pretty bad."
Administrators, the board and a new citizens advisory committee will spend the next five months reworking the district's current $2.5 billion spending plan around the gloomy financial forecast. A tentative budget is due on July 27.
The board on Wednesday did not specify which employees could be at risk of layoffs, though administrative secretaries were cited as one group that could be reduced. Board members praised the importance of teachers, and declared its top priority is avoiding any impact on student achievement, including the preservation of arts, music and physical education programs.
But the board on Wednesday approved an immediate hiring freeze, in anticipation of rising costs for class-size limits, health insurance and other items, along with education funding reductions in the upcoming state budget and the loss of federal stimulus funds. Any hiring exceptions must get board approval.
Robinson added that avoiding layoffs is "not in the realm of reality."
But other board members insisted that raises for teachers and employees be considered despite the possibility of layoffs, unpaid furloughs and work-week changes.
"There is another elephant in this room and that is teacher salaries," board member Karen Brill said. "We can't go through the budget process and leave leftovers for teacher salaries."
Board member Jennifer Prior Brown addressed teachers who may have been watching a telecast of the board meeting: "You've got a board now and a superintendent now who value you."
"I would love to pay you more," Brown continued. "I hope we can do that."
Board Chairman Frank Barbieri agreed that teacher salaries would not be overlooked during the budget process.
"We need to make sure the most important component of the system, the teachers, are paid a living wage," he said.
Barbieri said the district bureaucracy — which has ballooned to 97 departments — needs "wholesale changes."
"We need to definitely restructure," he said. "It's too big."
Robinson said she would be unable to approve any salary increases while employees are being laid off. She called it a "moral dilemma" because she understands some salaries are too low.
"It would be lovely to give employees raises, but I don't see it happening," Robinson said. "I also want to be able to pay our bills next year."
But other board members refused to write off raises. The board will meet privately in an executive session on Wednesday to discuss its desires for upcoming employee contract negotiations.
"We've got a pot of money," Brown said. "Let's figure out the best way to spend it."
In other business, the board voted 6-0 to ratify the legal agreement concerning this week's removal of former Superintendent Art Johnson. Board member Monroe Benaim was absent.
Barbieri and Johnson on Monday signed the "mutual separation," which identifies $428,000 in severance and other payouts for Johnson and covers legal protections for the board and Johnson.
The board also voted 6-0, with Benaim out, to approve Malone's employment contract, which includes various terms that Malone and the board agreed upon last week.
Malone, who started work on Tuesday, will be paid $15,000 per month plus $2,500 per month in expenses. He's set to work for up to six months while the board finds a permanent education chief.
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