Story by Luka Bassnett, Disha Chatterjee, Kaia Mills-Lee, Grace Snelling and Lila Taylor with reporting by Justin Guilak and visuals by Michael Melinger.
CLAYTON'S REALLOCATION OF RESOURCES
The reverberations of the Great Recession, which officially transpired from December 2007 to June 2009, caused the School District of Clayton to make significant cuts and reallocate resources in the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 school years. Over those two years, the District made a combined $2.57 million budget reduction, “through its Resource Management and Long-Term Financial Planning (LTFP) efforts, which involved input from a committee of District administrators, parents, staff and community members,” according to the School District of Clayton website.
As of 2016, the District spent an average of $18,020.08 per student. In Missouri, the average teacher salary is $48,478. At Clayton, it’s $72,184. In Missouri, the average administrator salary is $88,796. At Clayton, it’s $123,674. In 2016, Clayton used 80.12 percent of its $50,173,814 expenditures on employee salaries and benefits. During the reductions, the District worked to make sure that teachers in the District remained well-compensated, but some staffing reductions were made at that time.
In 2012, three positions were cut at the high school that still come up in faculty conversations today: the positions of academic director, substitute coordinator and department secretary. The question is not merely why; it is whether or not those positions were vital to the function of CHS.
“I was in the District [when the cuts were made], but I was in a different role,” said Clayton Superintendent Sean Doherty. “I know that the main focus of that conversation was to try to make decisions that were going to be farthest away from the classrooms.”
The Board did not consider cutting down on teachers, but other programs and personnel were considered across the District.
“I know that they looked at staff benefits and the health benefits and made some decisions around cost savings, and so some of those systems types of things versus personnel, but I know that they really tried to make decisions that they felt were as far away from the classroom as possible,” said Doherty.
Despite attempting to stray away from staff whose loss would directly affect students, Doherty realizes that any staff can have a relationship with a student, directly influencing that student if let go.
“I also know that our administrative support staff are very integral to our students as well,” said Doherty. “We had to make decisions to cut some of those positions back then, which was difficult because our support staff have important relationships with our students. They’re sometimes the trusted adults for some our students.”
None of the positions lost have since been added back, and administration and the Board are not considering returning those positions if the 2019 tax levy passes. Instead, they are looking towards the future.
“We haven’t added back any of those positions or structures that we cut since that time, so those cuts have carried on. For this current tax levy, we’re not saying, ‘We’re doing the tax levy so we can add back the positions that we had previously,’” said Doherty.
The last tax levy Clayton experienced was in 2003, and the next will be voted upon on April 2, 2019.
According to the School District of Clayton website, “Proposition E is a ballot proposal asking voters within the School District of Clayton to consider an operating tax levy increase of 56 cents and an 8 cent waiver of Proposition C sales tax revenues. The net effect of both measures will provide the District with an additional 64 cents of operating revenue. The additional revenue will be used to maintain and strengthen the District’s academic excellence and fiscal stability by eliminating the gap between revenues and expenses, addressing facility and maintenance needs and rebuilding reserves.”
If Prop. E fails, administration and the Board predict that another wave of expenditure cuts would result in the loss of more staff and personnel. Without the levy, the expenditure and revenue gap would climb to $4.8 million in the 2020 fiscal year.
“The tax levy was voted on by the School Board, and six out of seven members voted to put it on the ballot this April,” said School Board President Kristin Redington. “That’s to give the community the opportunity to pass it. So it’s really inviting the community’s input, what do they value and what do they want for the Clayton schools and their future.”
The tax levy is not just needed to add new positions but to keep up with inflation and other economic challenges.
“The way that school finances work, they’re cyclical in nature,” said Redington. “So you have a certain amount of revenue coming in, and then you have your expenses, and when the revenue first gets voted on by the tax levy, it creates an ability to create a fund balance, and the expenses are maybe a little bit lower than the money that’s coming in. But then eventually, because of inflation, your expenses rise, and the amount of money that we get doesn’t change. So eventually the expenses are going to take over the amount coming in.”
However, the frequency of Clayton’s requests for tax levies is much lower than other school districts.
“Usually a tax levy lasts for three to five years. We had a tax levy in 1988 and in 2003, and now we’re going for one in 2019, so ours are lasting way longer, primarily because of how fiscally prudent the Board has been over these years. We’re super conservative in how we handle our money, we’re super frugal, we very rarely allow for new hires to happen. It’s this constant look at human capital and how you can re-sort it instead of having to add on,” Redington said.
The Board and other administration plan to align the new revenue with the mission statement and goals of the District.
“The current tax levy is going to allow us to maintain that high level of academic excellence that we provide our students—making sure that we’re not having to make any additional cuts. But with our new strategic plan, my hope is that we really ask ourselves if these are the priorities within our strategic plan, how are we aligning our resources to make sure that we’re supporting those priorities?” Doherty said.
"With our new strategic plan, my hope is that we really ask ourselves if these are the priorities within our strategic plan, how are we aligning our resources to make sure that we’re supporting those priorities?" -Sean Doherty, Superintendent
The tax levy, if passed, will be used to maintain Clayton’s current standards as well as add any new positions or programs as needed.
“So if we’re looking at a different approach to learning, or a different position that would support learning in a different way, then our resources should be aligned to that,” said Doherty. “Right now the plan is not to add back any of the cuts we’ve made in 2012-13. We want to make sure that we’re moving forward and that our resources are aligned with our goals. That might mean that we have to look at positions differently, or innovative ideas or different opportunities for students that we haven’t had in the past.”
Despite Doherty’s forward-thinking approach, many CHS teachers have felt the loss of the cut positions. While a student may not realize these losses, they may be affecting the student indirectly.
Department chair and history teacher Josh Meyers demonstrated how the loss of department secretaries affected him.
“I think what ultimately happened was not so much an increased burden on the department chair, but an increased burden, a small one, on the workload of everyone. The policies on paper seem super reasonable unless you’re a teacher who’s constantly innovating and thinking on the fly and changing stuff on the fly. Those kinds of quick decisions and changes to lessons happen all the time.”
The lack of a staff member ready to make copies and do other secretarial work for each department resulted in this loss. If a teacher wants to add to their lesson, they aren’t able to do so in the same way. Currently, there is a certain amount of notice required for copies, preventing teachers from changing lessons, worksheets, homework and tests.
“Our teachers are so professional and so dedicated that the [effect on students] probably didn’t change that much. It’s small tiny little things that the teachers absorb that the kids would never necessarily know or experience that is the kind of cumulative of those cuts. This has become our new normal and this is how we operate.”
Now, the three staff members in Room 8 run the administrative duties that the individual department secretaries once held.
“Prior to those cuts, each department had its own departmental assistant. We went from having a department assistant for each department to consolidating them into Room 8 and using them as an office pool rather than departmental assistants, and by doing that it allowed us to reduce by two or three positions at the time,” CHS Principal Dan Gutchewsky said.
The loss of department secretaries resulted in a larger burden on the academic departments than on the counseling department.
“Fortunately, for us in counseling, we didn’t lose administrative support like the rest of the building did. That particular part of it: the administrative assistant, I would just leave it at that we didn’t feel the effect of that as much as the academic departments did,” Counseling Department Chair Carolyn Blair said.
Despite the extra burden placed on the teachers, the School Board continues to promote its student-focused agenda.
“[Lack of department secretaries] is putting more pressure and work on teachers who should be teaching, and that’s challenging,” said Redington. “At the same time, we are very fortunate in Clayton that we spend $20,000 per kid, and many school districts don’t do that, so where do we try to control costs and still try to provide the best education that we can with as many options and opportunities as we can for kids?”
Another significant position lost was the substitute coordinator. Before the cuts, two part-time positions were merged to form one, full-time substitute coordinator.
“Also, at that time, we had a sub coordinator that coordinated the subs in the morning and then filled in if there was a shortage or if something came up during the day,” said Gutchewsky. “The duties of assigning subs in the morning went to one of the administrative assistants in the office. If we run short [on staff] we use the campus supervisors to fill in for periods here and there. But that also allowed us, at the high school, to eliminate another salary position.”
Presently, teachers are left to scramble for substitutes, increasing the burden on the department chairs. Additionally, teachers often give up their planning periods in order to fill in for other, absent teachers.
“If someone has to leave, and I know that I can’t rely on a permanent sub, I just go to someone in the department,” said Meyers. “And this is a really important point, it’s not just department chairs, it’s like we’re asking each other to cover during their prep periods. While everyone is totally willing to do it because we’re good colleagues and we help each other out to whatever degree we can, those are things that we weren’t having to do before. So there’s no question that the amount of periods that people have to cover due to absences or absences that aren’t planned, that’s where a lot of the loss is felt in that position.”
Having that permanent position was especially beneficial for the history department, as the previous substitute coordinator was trained in history specifically and could teach a lesson as opposed to playing a video and handing students a worksheet.
“In terms of a day-to-day impact on the department chair’s life, that was one of the biggest things lost,” said Meyers. “It’s just hard without a permanent person here. When you have a permanent person, you have a relationship with them and they know who you are and what your needs are.”
Other teachers in the building have felt the loss of the sub coordinator, and deem its return crucial.
“I think the sub coordinator position needs to come back. If you have at least one dedicated person who is able to oversee that, it ensures that we have somebody here if something happens,” said CHS teacher and former administrator Marci Pieper. “I just think that the position was something valuable and could come back easily.”
Pieper’s not alone with her opinion. Many teachers miss the convenience and the stability of a permanent position.
“We cover for each other. In some cases that means we’re doing two classes at once. It adds another kind of layer to stress which shouldn’t be a difficult issue,” said CHS art teacher and Art Department Chair Christina Vodicka. “That sub coordinator was really valuable just to have someone in the building who knew teachers and who had the sensibility of schedules and could have that big picture view of who needed to be where and when.”
Self-described fiscally conservative Board of Education member Brad Bernstein does not refer to the personnel losses as budget cuts, but as a “reallocation of resources.” He argues that a substitute coordinator should not be necessary.
The third position eliminated during the budget cuts, and perhaps the most important in terms of teacher voice in administrative and building decisions, was that of the academic director. Previously held by Meyers, the academic director handled accreditation of the district as well as running Leadership Council meetings, which involved building administration and department chairs. The academic director acted as a bridge between teachers and administration and no equivalent position has since been created. A position running district accreditation still exists, and is currently held by CHS science teacher Craig Sucher.