With more than 1,500 comments and nearly 20,000 views on the school system’s Facebook page, the school board’s Dec. 14 meeting has drawn the attention of residents throughout the county.
While the board’s decision to begin the second semester remotely has generated the most discussion, a personnel move voted on by the board caused residents to voice their concerns as well.
The Burke County Board of Education voted 5-2 in favor of promoting Student Services Director Mike Swan to become the Burke County Public Schools assistant superintendent. Board members Seth Hunt and Wendi Craven voted in opposition to the move.
Swan started at BCPS in 1998 as a teacher at Chesterfield Elementary before moving to Ray Childers Elementary. He served as assistant principal at Liberty Middle, Heritage Middle and Freedom High Schools before becoming principal at Heritage and later Freedom. Swan has served as student services director since 2016.
Hiring freeze/personnel status update
Former Burke County Board of Commissioners candidate Dorian Palmer was among those who voiced his displeasure with the decision on the Burke County Public Schools Facebook page.
Another commenter said she felt the move was a “horrible decision,” adding that she did not hear any discussion about the decision prior to the night of the meeting.
“How can we hire an assistant superintendent with a hiring freeze in Burke county (sic) when we already don’t have enough teachers?” the community member said.
During its June 25 meeting, both BCPS Superintendent Larry Putnam and Finance Officer Keith Lawson warned of a potentially disastrous budget shortfall in the 2020-21 fiscal year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, though the school system’s financial outlook remains mostly unclear, The News Herald spoke with Lawson about current economic projections.
Lawson said the administration took “a very cautious approach” with its budget and implemented a hiring freeze on March 14.
“There were many unknowns then and there still are many unknowns related to this pandemic and its impact on the economy, both short term and long term,” he said. “But that cautious approach bought us time.”
Lawson also said the school system’s current economic projections are not as dire as they were in March.
“We could still be facing a $3 million deficit, worst-case scenario, or an even better scenario is we break even,” he said. “We could have continued to hire and fill positions based on funding, but in looking ahead to the next academic year, we would have had to lay off people and hand out pink slips if the enrollment is not there to support the positions.”
Kim Rudisill, BCPS director of human resources, said the hiring freeze lasted from March to the end of the 2019-20 fiscal year, June 30.
“Since July 1 through today, we have hired 35 certified licensed positions and 18 classified positions, positions we consider critical to our district,” Rudisill said. “Through attrition, resignations and retirements, we have been able to eliminate positions or re-assign roles from within.”
Lawson and Rudisill worked “hand-in-hand to evaluate and manage the budget and our positions,” according to Putnam.
“(Lawson and Rudisill) understand the balance between student enrollment and state funding and how not to overspend in areas of positions,” Putnam said. “With our enrollment down and the number of students in our buildings down, we simply have needed less people to serve our students.”
Board members’ opposition to the hiring
Hunt said he thought the hiring freeze was a “reasonable and prudent thing for the superintendent to do,” adding that the freeze could potentially help to avoid a repeat of what happened following the recession of 2008-09 in which many BCPS staff members were laid off.
“We still don’t know what the budget picture’s going to look like as we go forward,” Hunt said. “I think we’re close to 60, if not over 60 unfilled teaching and staff positions. We’ve had so many absences of teachers and other staff positions due to people becoming infected or by virtue of contact and having to isolate or quarantine. Then, when you throw in we’ve got 60-plus teacher and staff vacancies that we’re sitting on, that we’re going to fill the assistant superintendent position, I was a bit taken aback by that.
“I don’t think presently that it’s mission-critical that the position be filled.”
Hunt said he felt the administration’s Leadership Team could have temporarily filled in for whatever critical issues may have existed.
“We have administrators and managers that go through pretty intensive leadership training,” Hunt said. “That gives us a very deep bench of leadership experience to fall back on in times like these. Not many other school systems have that. It had nothing to do with whom we chose to fill the position with. I just don’t see the critical need to have that particular position filled right now.”
Hunt said he urged his fellow board members to revisit filling the position at a later date, such as three to four months from now.
Board Vice Chair R.L. Icard disagreed with Hunt and felt it was urgent to fill the position immediately.
“With COVID-19 changing everyone’s jobs, someone has to oversee the changes while maintaining the programs already in place, such as the Leadership Team,” Icard said. “Now more than ever, we need our leadership in place.”
Questions about the hiring process
Board member Wendi Craven said, like Hunt, she felt the decision to fill the assistant superintendent position was not necessary at this time given the cutbacks among other staff members.
In addition, Craven said she took issue with the administration’s decision to not open the job to the public, as was the protocol for former assistant superintendent David Fonseca’s hiring in 2015.
“Even though appointing Dr. Swan is permissible under policy, I felt it was irresponsible,” Craven said. “I felt that it was irresponsible not to post the position and allow other people within the school system or outside the school system to apply for the job.”
Craven said the administration’s decision to not post the job online was unfair to potential candidates within the school system.
Craven said she thought the administration’s job consolidation and cutbacks were causing a burden on overworked school staff members.
“We have some elementary schools that are sharing bookkeepers, guidance counselors and teachers,” Craven said. “I feel if our people on the ground are having to take that deep a cut, then our Central Office should also take a cut.
“I’m thinking about the teachers, the principals, our support staff who are working hard every day,” Craven said. “They’re tired.”
Putnam and BCPS Public Relations Officer Cheryl Shuffler pointed to the school board’s Policy 1700, which gives the superintendent the authority to make recommendations to the board on new hires and promotions.
“Dr. Swan is competent and qualified, which is the reason we hired a local candidate,” Putnam said. “He has experience leading large groups of people, including our largest high school. Under his direction as director of student services, our graduation rate has continued to climb.”
Swan received a doctorate in education leadership from Western Carolina University.
According to Shuffler, Swan will assume the role of assistant superintendent immediately, while also continuing in his role as student services director through at least the end of this fiscal year, June 30, 2021. The district will save $98,000 by not filling his vacated position right away and the difference in Swan and Fonseca’s salaries, Shuffler said.
Johnny Casey is a staff writer and can be reached at email@example.com or 828-432-8907.