School Board enacts hiring freeze

Published 8:10 am Sunday, March 15, 2020

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RESERVE — The St. John the Baptist Parish School Board voted to implement an immediate hiring freeze on all employment, excluding school-based personnel, during Thursday’s regular meeting in Reserve.

The hiring freeze was voted on exactly as it was listed on the agenda and encompasses all higher-level positions.

During the discussion, School Board member Debbie Schum advised putting a hiring freeze on only the positions that were not funded in the original 2019-2020 school year budget. According to Schum, eight vacant positions in a recently approved organizational chart amount to $642,000 in salaries not covered by the original budget. With benefits added, the cost is close to $1 million.

The unfunded positions Schum referred to were: executive director of assessment and accountability, coordinator-assist testing, supervisor of curriculum and instruction, information tech coordinator, two curriculum facilitators, accounting supervisor and interim director of data management.

Schum added that of the eight positions, the School Board did not approve five, and two don’t have approved job descriptions. Aside from financial impact, she said filling these positions would tie the hands of the incoming superintendent.

“As stewards of the public money and public trust, we cannot spend $1 million that is not currently in our budget on recurring expenses,” Schum said. “If these people are signing administrative contracts, they are guaranteed at least two years.”

School Board member Ali Burl disagreed with the hiring freeze, citing an immediate need to fill key positions that have been left vacant for months. He noted longtime chief financial officer Felix Boughton left in July 2019, while purchasing director Jeff Montz left in December 2019.
“We still don’t have contracts for these positions,” Burl said. “If you don’t have a CFO, how can we just run on autopilot? Our policy states that we need to get ready to submit our budget plan for July. If we don’t (hire a CFO), we are going to be behind the eight ball.”

Burl pointed out that the School Board allowed previous Interim Superintendent Heidi Trosclair to hire individuals for 15 positions, no questions asked and no hiring freeze implemented. Schum rebutted that Trosclair’s appointments did not impact the annual budget.

Board member Nia Mitchell said the hiring freeze derails the progress the School Board made at the February meeting.

“When we voted on this organizational chart, the Board approved these positions. It’s a way to circumvent the process,” Mitchell said.

She said filling key positions is especially important to retaining overworked employees forced to fill in the gaps.

“I have a genuine concern about that, especially when I have people in the schools who agree with me,” Mitchell said. “They’re doing the work. They have concerns that we are tying their hands because we’re not doing the work. They’re doing two or three jobs, and they’re tired.”

Board member Shawn Wallace agreed the hiring freeze is a poor decision, adding there is no guarantee a permanent superintendent will be placed any time soon to fill the positions.

“We need to start putting people in place so we can start giving these schools the right amount of help that they need,” Wallace said. “They are tired, and these people are going to leave and find other jobs, and we’ll be stuck in the same position that we’re talking about right now.”

Board member Charo Holden said her concern is over where the School Board is financially, to which Board president Patrick Sanders responded, “The answer is, ‘We don’t know.’”

Mitchell noted the vacant positions allocated for in the budget have saved the school district money, since the money for them was already allocated in their budget. Burl mentioned that Marathon Petroleum Company recently presented $20 million to the parish as a sales tax pre-payment, which should equate to approximately $6 million in extra revenue for the school system.

Sanders said the School Board must vote on the hiring freeze exactly as it was listed on the agenda, without selectively excluding certain high level positions like the chief financial officer.

The motion to instate the hiring freeze passed with six yeas and five nays.