Questions and concerns about the Hot Springs School District's finances, school board and administrators have been common in Hot Springs since the February 8, school board meeting.
In an effort to better understand the situation of the school district, the Star interviewed Hot Springs superintendent Kevin Coles.
The district set a goal of $422,000 in budget reductions. As of March 23, they cut $323,490.
Isaac Zarecki: How long have you been with Hot Springs School District, what is your background in education and administration?
Kevin Coles: I'm in my third year with the Hot Springs School District. This is my 39 year in education. I taught, coached and was a principal for about 19 years before I became a superintendent. This is my ninth year as a superintendent in South Dakota.
IZ: What is the budget deficit, and how did the district wind up in this situation?
KC: Our target is to cut $422,000 from the budget. The first year I came here, when we got our audit report. After seeing that, we knew we were going backwards and getting in trouble. I had asked our auditor what future impact on the district would be should enrollment decrees. She said, you'd be in big trouble. The process had to start my first year. I spent that first year listening, learning and figuring out how we were going to lead. It was clear we were going to have to make some cuts.
In the second year we were able to cut $289,000 from the budget through attrition. Attrition is resignations and retirements. It was significant. We didn't replace some of the staff that retired and resigned. We knew that that wasn't going to be enough.
This year, when I talked to the staff in August, I focused on budget. I told them we had been deficit spending for years and that we needed to tighten our belts and get our fund balance up. We had a new business manager come on in March of 2017. We talked and she recommended that we needed to enforce our spending procedures. We started that process with staff. I asked the staff to help identify any areas were we could save money. I said we need to have staff participate as a team as we move forward. I put it out that staff could email me or leave anonymous notes in my mailbox. I told them that we would try to keep everything as confidential as possible during that process. I wasn't going to share what they shared with me, or put names to it. I indicated that I would compile a list and work with the admin team to identity areas were we could make cuts and make recommendations to the school board. We started with a broad funnel and brought it down to the things that were doable. Throughout this process, we never moved forward with something unless it was unanimous. When I worked with our principals, all of us agreed on the recommended cuts before we presented to the finance committee.
IZ: Changes to the state funding formula had a big effect on Hot Springs, but are there things out side of the formula that the district did or should have done to help with their finances?
KC: Everyone in our school system had a part in where we got. It didn't happen with one person. It didn't happen with the school board. It happened with all of us. we all had a role in how we spent the district's money. Whether you were a teacher who requested something for the classroom that was a 'want' instead of a 'need', or the principal who approved the 'want', or the superintendent who approved the 'want'. We all had a role in it. The board relies on us as teachers, principals and superintendents to advise them. They aren't in the school day to day like we are. When we make recommendations to the board they trust that we've done our due diligence as people who work for them.
IZ: In the last school board meeting, the board accepted several resignations and approved a reduction in force for several positions. Was this enough to get the district where it needs to be, or are more cuts necessary?
Last meetings' cuts were part A of the process. We did those first because we have to meet certain deadlines with the reduction in force and non renewals. We need to notify all certified staff by April 15. With that being said, I had originally anticipated a reduction in force(RIF) by 2.5 positions. When we reduce those staff members, because of our RIF policy, they have recall rights. Senior staff members affected by the RIF can bump less experienced staff members from positions if the senior staff member is qualified for the other position.
Before we can move to part B, we have to totally complete plan A. This involves meeting with people who were effected by the RIF and seeing if they would like to exercise their recall rights. If they do, that could effect another staff member.
Part B involves reviewing our classified staff. Part C is looking at things we can cut that don't involve people. For example, not renewing certain software subscriptions, outside services and other non-mandatory spending issues.
IZ: In a RIF how do you go about selecting who or what is getting reduced?
KC: That's a time consuming process. You go through all of your programming. I rely on our principals because they know their building's programming and staff. The understand the potential impact better than I do. We have to go through all of our program. Are there staff members that don't have full schedules. If that's the case, then let's look at it. Are there are elective areas where we can reduce those elective courses and still be able to provide adequate service to our students. Then you take a look at non-teaching areas like librarians and counselors. You look at what will have the least impact on our test scores, our students and on our staff. With that being said, no matter what our conclusion is, there's going to be a group of people that wants us to pick something else. No matter what we pick in the end there will be staff and community members who will be dissatisfied stakeholders.
IZ: How do you go about choosing what programs and extracurricular will be cut? What programs are still at risk of being cut?
KC: We are still evaluating. When people ask me what we are looking at, I tell them we are looking at everything. We are looking at all extracurriculars, what their impact is and balence that with our co-curricular offerings. We can reduce spending in our activities without cutting programs. One of the last things you want to do is cut programs.
We start by cutting the fat. The fat impacts people the least. After that, you cut into muscle. That's what happens when you cut people, and that hurts. When you cut a program and don't serve kids at all, that's what I call cutting to the bone. We try to avoid cutting programs.
In the case of soccer, which was on the agenda last meeting, it was a numbers issue, not primarily as a budget issue. We have fewer kids in soccer. We've met with the Youth Soccer Association to get accurate numbers for this year and following years.
IZ: Has the district considered a pay-to-play option for extracurriculars?
KC: Pay-to-play is something we haven't done here. I've been in districts where they do it. That is certainly something we are going to evaluate. The danger with pay-to-play is not giving kids the opportunity to participate because of their socioeconomic standing. That's something we don't want to do. We are fortunate to have a lot of individuals, organizations and businesses in the community that support the school. We get donations from those entities for kids who might not be able to afford certain things.
We can solve part of the pay-to-play issue with donations like that, but there's still a problem. We might not always know about the kids in need. Kids might not come forward and say, they aren't going to participate in a program because they can't afford it. We will wind up losing those kids, and that's the last thing we want to see.
IZ: The school board and administration has been criticized for their communication about the budget issue in the past. What are your thoughts on that, and has the school board or administration changed the way they are communicating?
KC: We will always evaluate how we can and should have communicated. The process has been changing as the situation has changed.
I'm a strongly believe there are no better stakeholders to suggest change in an institution than those who work within the institution. Our teacher, classified staff, certified staff, administrators and myself are here everyday. We should know what are the best things to take a look at. That's where I wanted to take a look at.
If a bank in town asked me if I had recommendations on changing the bank, I might have suggestions on customer service, but as far as the continuous way a bank is run, I wouldn't be able to offer much.
Different people in the community will have different levels of familiarity with how a school board operates. They aren't going to know how we schedule, what our programming is, they won't know the demands the state puts on us or what we have to do or what we don't have to do. The state doesn't require a councilor or librarian. Most people don't know that type of information and I don't expect them to, because they aren't familiar with the day-to-day operations of a school. The RIF policy, non-renewals and tenure are things that non-school people might not understand. Just like I couldn't advise a farmer about when to plant, harvest or fertilize.
Right or wrong, I tried to focus my attention on the people that work for us, and what they were saying. We didn't always get the input we thought we would get. It's hard for someone to recommend a colleague be reduced. It's a tough thing. I don't want to do it, the principals don't want to do it, but someone has to make that recommendation to the board. Ultimately, that's going to be me as a superintendent. I take full responsibility for the recommendations I've made, but I didn't do it in a vacuum. I did it with as much information from people as possible.
IZ: Attendees of school board meetings have been frustrated with the public comment portion of the meetings. You and the board don't address comments or questions raised during this time. Why doesn't the board respond to questions or comments?
KC: The reason it doesn't happen at board meetings is because a board meeting is a business meeting held in public, it's not a public meeting. On a night we have a board meeting, we have a business agenda and we are there to conduct the business of the board. We do have public participation, where members of the public are able to express and the board is able to listen. It's not designed to answer questions or generate discussion. It is the opportunity for the public to say, "here are my thoughts and concerns." We take notes, and if there are things in those comments that we need to evaluate or address, then we try and do so.
A business meeting is different than an open public forum. A forum might answers because we don't know all of the answers. If a board member to engages in something they don't have the information on, it just creates more misinformation.
I understand the frustration. I've tried to reach out to as many people as I can to sit down and have one on one conversations with me.
IZ: During the public comment at the school board meeting and at other meetings in town, people have proposed consolidating the three school districts in Fall River County. What are your thoughts on that?
KC:You have to be careful when you are talking about other districts. That conversation should be initiated somewhat confidentially. Who are we to say that schools should consolidate with us. It's a conversation that should happen between administrators and boards. It's something all districts should have input in and arrive at a conclusion. You don't go out and force that conversation.
IZ: You have been criticized for going to out of state conferences while the district faces budget cuts. What are your thoughts on this criticism. What does the district gain from these conferences?
KC: We send people to conferences all the time. That includes: sending staff members to technology conferences or autism conferences, principals have gone to their national conferences and I attend my national conference.
I think going to conferences allows you to understand what's going on nationally. It allows you to think globally instead of locally. You make networking connections with people. You also are able to listen to some very influential speakers. The founder of Khan Academy spoke at my last conference. It was a very enlightening conversation to hear how it started and what he is offering schools today.
There are also things in contracts that the board is obligated to honor. Conferences are often in superintendent's contracts. It's not just me, many other people have attended conferences that were meaningful to them. We haven't addressed any items in any of our contracts or negotiated agreements because the board cannot do that unilaterally.
IZ: With the cuts Hot Springs is facing, can the school district maintain the same level of education and its quality production of young people?
KC: The answer is no. Our cuts are going to effect our kids and staff members. We are going to take a step backwards in certain areas. But we believe the areas we've identified are primarily non-curricular areas. They're not necessarily going to effect kids in the classroom. We will still offer Spanish online. We will still offer every child an opportunity to take choir and or band. We believe we will still be able to provide the social and emotional counselling that needs to be done, though we might have to rely on more outside groups by making referrals earlier, as needed
Cutting the curriculum director position will probably hurt us the most with our programming. We put that position in because we wanted to move forward with better testing scores, aligning our curriculum and getting teachers engaged in our standards. That's an area where we know we will be taking a step backwards.
We can't provide the same level of services when we make cuts. Ideally, the smaller the classroom size the better. If you had the money to have 15 kids per section in elementary school, we'd all want to do it. We can't afford to do that anymore. We have to increase the size of our sections because of the enrollment decline we're facing. That decline starts in the elementary school, moves to the middle school and ultimately effects programming at the high school.
I can't say that we will be able to provide the same level of service for our kids. With that being said, I believe kids are innovative and will find ways to be successful. We don't give them enough credit for that. Kids find scholarships or search for other ways to understand things on their own. We have access to technology today that we didn't 30 years ago. Kids understand how to use technology better than many adults.
The core we provide our students will still be very good moving forward. I have full faith in our staff that they will continue to do their best job in the classroom for our students, district and community.