TALLADEGA -- The Talladega City Board of Education discussed a wide range of issues, including state funding for teacher units and capital improvements, during a marathon 3 ½-hour called meeting and work session Thursday morning.

The meeting/work session was the first to be held in a newly renovated portion of the old Northside Hal-Henderson Elementary School, which will now serve as a regular meeting place.

Board member Mary McGhee was absent do to a death in the family.

During the meeting portion, Superintendent Terry Roller recommended the board approve a contract with LEAN Frog, a Huntsville-based company that helps school boards improve work-flow and efficiency across several areas. The contract, which the board OK’d, will begin with the Child Nutrition Program and then cover at least three other areas, including transportation, maintenance, payroll and other areas at a maximum cost of $2,700. The board could have also approved separate contracts for each area, but Roller did not recommend this.

“This will let the experts help us catch up, without us having to go and reinvent the wheel,” Roller said.

Roller and Chief Schools Financial Officer Arthur Watts then went into a discussion of the system’s tight finances going into the next academic year.

“We’re in the process of looking at each of our schools, all our staff and all the numbers for next year,” Roller said. “We need to maximize all our local funds.”

Watts explained that school systems earn teacher units from the state based on student population. The state funds all earned units for certified staff (teachers and administrators). Then, any funds leftover are applied to classified staff.

“That money is not based on the needs of the system but just on what the state has leftover,” Watts said. The state money for classified employees also does not cover fringe benefits.

The system must maintain at least one month’s operating funds in reserve, Roller explained. This includes 26 locally funded full-time equivalents (FTEs). These FTEs are both certified and classified employees (teachers and support staff), and includes wages, benefits, shared insurance costs and state-mandated raises. The money is parceled out by the state based on each system’s enrollment.

“Our enrollment is down about 40 percent over the last 20 years because of a population shift,” and some other issues, Roller said. “Our salaries are based on the state matrix minimum, which means it’s even more important that we make this system more like a family. We need to build relations and customer service.”

When all the added costs are included, the staff equivalent comes out to about $65,000.

On the other hand, the deficit for next year is estimated at about $700,000, and Roller said he and Watts would have to come up with a reduction plan by May.

“We want to use the state funds as much as possible, and then use local funds for things like foreign language classes at the junior high school and art and music programs in the elementary schools,” he added.

In part, the savings would come through natural attrition (staff retiring or moving, etc.) and staff reduction. However, staff reductions carry the unintended consequence of reducing student engagement and reducing academic offerings.

“When I first got here, I said I was all about engagement, engagement, engagement” Roller said. “That’ll be harder to do.”

The next step will be to get letters of intent from all system employees so that the planning for next year can begin, while working with the LEAN Frog consultants to maximize efficiency while, hopefully, reducing local expenditures.

Board member James Braswell suggested the board look closely at the reasons the system is losing enrollment, which feeds the loss of teacher units.

Roller assured him these issues were being taken up, but “you can’t turn a cruise ship around quickly. We are making nautical terms.”

One of the changes the superintendent recommended was giving students “a true middle school experience. I’m not talking about a new building, but about programs like archery that we have in grades six, seven and eight, but they’re scattered around five different campuses.

“We could do something like an introductory level band that could feed into the high school band and improve that program, build it all the way through. Right now, the high school band doesn’t have a feeder program. We could also do early enrichment programs for gifted students that worked through to the high school, so you’ve got students taking calculus, say, because they started advanced math in sixth grade. You could start fine arts and music programs…”

Board Chairman Jake Montgomery added that he would like to see the pre-kindergarten program expanded to all the middle schools in the system, possibly using grant funds.

Curriculum coordinator Pattie Thomas said she is working on a $150,000 per school grant to launch a pre-k program, with grants of $82,000 to $92,000 per year from there.

Montgomery also suggested hiring a professional grant writer that would be paid with a percentage of each grant awarded, and asked that there be some action on this by the end of the year.

Watts agreed, and said, “It’s been a dirty word in Alabama, but I think it might be time to start looking at contracting out some services. We get a better return on our money from a financial standpoint and still get the job done for cheaper.”

As the system loses employees through attrition, they could be replaced by contractors going forward, he said.

Roller also said there was state money available for contracting with retired educators, a category that Talladega is rich in due to the state’s oldest Historically Black College and the only deaf and blind schools in the state, among others.

Watts also pointed out that “flex funding” was available from the state for capital improvements and maintenance. Right now, the system has no debt and is planning to pay $2.5 million to build three new elementary school gyms. Instead of spending this money all at once, the board could finance the new buildings over a period of five to seven years, thereby freeing up up to $500,000 for operations per year, freeing up more money in the general fund.

Montgomery asked Watts to look into financing the building and report back at the next meeting.

Also Thursday, the board:

  • Accepted the resignation of Coach Chris Elliot at Zora Ellis Junior High School and replaced him in that position with Vincent Harris;
  • Announced there would be an open house to debut the system’s new logo and marketing plan at Talladega High School on Monday at 6 p.m.; and
  • Heard updates on test scores and academics from each of the principals in the system.

Further coverage of Thursday’s meeting will appear in Saturday’s Daily Home.