LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- The Arkansas Education Board on Monday placed the Pulaski County School District in fiscal distress, saying the district must cut nearly $13.6 million from its $170 million budget for the coming school year.
The state took over the third-largest district in the state last year due to financial irregularities, but Monday's move takes the designation a step further.
District Superintendent Jerry Guess says the district has identified $6.67 million it can cut and that it will work with the teachers' and support staff unions to determine where the remaining $7 million will be cut.
"I do have a plan for unilateral implementation of the district's last, best and final offer," Guess said.
But Guess said he wants to approach the unions in a spirit of teamwork even though position cuts may exceed those that come from attrition. Pay and benefits will have to be reduced.
Marty Nix, president of the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers, didn't immediately return a voicemail left by The Associated Press on Monday afternoon. Guess said he'd present the financial situation to the unions Tuesday.
In 2009, teachers in the district conducted a work stoppage when the school board decertified their union. The union subsequently regained its status. The board was removed when the state took over the district in 2011.
"I'm a little confused in how this (budget deficit) takes place in a district we've taken over," Arkansas Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell said during the meeting.
Guess, who was installed by Kimbrell in the superintendent's position, said years of neglect in administering the district, including repeated changes of superintendents, allowed financial problems to fester.
The main reason for the sudden need for cuts is that enrollment in the district has declined, which reduces per-pupil funding from the state.
Board members voted unanimously to declare the district in fiscal distress.
The district has 17,000 students and 2,800 employees, 1,200 of whom are teachers. Guess noted the district is also the fifth-largest in the stage geographically. The district administers 36 schools, 24 of them elementary schools.
One of the potential cost savings involves adjusting the start and end times of the school day to save an estimated $400,000 in bus transportation costs.
Other savings — $3.85 million — would come from the elimination of 77 positions. Guess said about 125 staff members retire or resign each year. Some teachers may be transferred to different schools, he said.
An additional $1.5 million would come from cuts in the employee insurance package, and $775,000 would be saved by not filling positions that have come open.
Board member Joe Black said "one-tenth of the same planning" that Guess presented would have prevented the district from getting into trouble.
"I agree," Guess said.
"This is a preventable disease," Black said.
The cuts Guess wants to work out with the union involve opportunities for extra pay that are not mandated by the state. For instance, teachers in Pulaski County get extra money for carpool duty, receiving certain training and from having two more days in the school year than required by the state.
In all, teachers and support staff earn about $16 million in pay and benefits above what the state requires. That's where the additional $7 million in cuts will have to be found, Guess said.
"Time is of the essence," Guess said for the district to reach agreement with the unions so it can move ahead with summer planning for the 2012-2013 school year.
Guess said he wanted to reassure parents that the district's financial condition isn't cutting into the quality of education. He noted the separate building fund is in good shape and the district will soon start on capital improvements at a number of schools.
It would take approval from the Legislature, but Guess raised the possibility that the district remain under state control for more than two school years. He said it would be hard to achieve all the goals he's set forth for getting finances under control by the end of next school year.
There is no plan to consolidate any of the 36 schools, though officials raised that as a possibility for the future as a way to realize long-term savings.
The district is one of three in the county. The other two are the Little Rock and North Little Rock school districts.