What contract decisions can superintendents make without a state budget?

To comply with HR deadlines, district leaders need to act now even without budgetary guidelines from state legislatures—but strategically and carefully
By: | April 15, 2020
Superintendents are asking about the consequences of breaking a teaching contract and collective bargaining in schools due to state legislatures delaying state budgetary decisions as a result of the coronavirus.(gettyimages.com:thianchai sitthikongsak)

Many superintendents are being forced to make early employee contract decisions to comply with human resources deadlines as state legislatures delay state budgetary decisions due to the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus. The possibility that legislatures could reduce budgets later on have left district leaders unsure on how to proceed, from enacting a teacher hiring freeze to terminating positions altogether. Other concerns revolve around the process of collective bargaining in schools.

Here are a few creative solutions to some potential school budget cuts that state legislatures could make and ways to avoid the consequences of breaking a teaching contract and other processes.

A teacher hiring freeze should come now

“The first step shouldn’t just be creating a staff or teacher hiring freeze,” says Peter Gorman, superintendent in residence with the District Administration Leadership Institute and managing director of the National Superintendents Academy.

“Each new hire first needs to go through a review process to determine if the role is a high-priority need. The last step is then to make cuts across the board after the hiring freeze.”

Since many employee contracts are automatically renewed if no action is taken, superintendents need to consider the possibility of canceling certain teacher contracts now and renewing them later.

For HR deadlines that have already passed, superintendents should create an immediate staff and teacher hiring freeze, followed by slow spending and purchase contract cancellations for different programs.

Collective bargaining in schools

Superintendents should call on state legislatures and governors for guidance on what the budget looks like, especially on how to pursue collective bargaining going forward. “If you put an offer on the table, you might have to formally change the offer once the state budget is made, but this needs to be done within state rules,” says Gorman, who is also chief in residence for Chiefs for Change, a nonprofit organization led by district and state education leaders.

“Overall, you may want to slow down the process of collective bargaining in schools since the amount of dollars available for salary increases remains uncertain,” he adds.

Teacher resignations and federal funding

District leaders can expect teacher retirement and rollover to decrease due to the uncertainty of the work climate and the negative effects the coronavirus has had on investments, but superintendents should still take steps to reserve optionality. “If a teacher resigns, the best strategic approach would be to not replace that teaching position even if the resignation occurred in an area that you would have normally not put a hiring freeze on,” says Gorman.

Related: K-12 leaders gaining some flexibility over budgets

Related: 5 strategies for balancing the budget while preserving instruction

Related: Turning the tide on teacher shortages

Related: Solving the school therapist shortage

Also, superintendents need to consider the efficacy and politics involved in redirecting funds to supporting staff that were originally earmarked for students through the CARE Act, for example “When redirecting funds, it’s crucial to justify the importance of this transfer and understand the impact it will make on the places that lost this support,” says Gorman.

While helpful, an additional point leaders need to be aware of is that the fourth stimulus package from the Trump administration will be a one-time payment. “This money should therefore not be put into an effort that will require the same amount of funding later on in order to be maintained,” says Kristi Sandvik, superintendent of Buckeye Elementary School District in Arizona and president-elect of AASA, The School Superintendents Association. “Schools also cannot use one-time federal dollars on staff but can and should be used at the classroom level.”

The best way of avoiding the consequences of breaking a teaching contract? Don’t make cuts

District leaders should focus on where to make savings rather than cutting personnel, which would exacerbate the teacher shortage crisis that existed pre-COVID-19, says Sandvik. “We will need our teachers when we return to our brick-and-mortar classrooms, so it’s important to maintain and depend on those relationships, so keep those communication lines open to bring a sense of calm and to dispel any ambiguity.”

In fact, leaders might need to hire additional support staff and psychologists to address the mental health needs of students and staff. “It’s hard to plan for, but you need to be mindful of the possible issues that could arise,” she says.

At Buckeye, officials are looking at making savings in general funds such as substitute teacher and transportation while taking into account unplanned costs such as being commensurate with the U.S. Department of Education’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. “It’s too early to be making cuts,” says Sandvik. “We have to be looking where savings can be made now and taking it one step at a time.”

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