1 of 3
Photo by Sarah Finnegan.
Mayor-elect Frank Brocato listens as Deer Valley Elementary School students explain a project they are working on in their STEM class Sept. 13. Brocato says he is prepared to work with the school system to solve its funding issue.
2 of 3
Dr. Kathy Murphy
Dr. Kathy Murphy is superintendent of Monroe County (Ala.) schools
3 of 3
Photo courtesy of Frank Brocato
Frank Brocato Feb 2016
Retired Hoover Fire Marshal Frank Brocato is running for mayor of Hoover, Ala.
Education was, in Hoover schools Superintendent Kathy Murphy’s mind, the issue that defined the 2016 Hoover municipal election.
With Hoover City Schools facing an expected $11.4 million shortfall in its 2016 budget and projected $1.9 million shortfall in 2017, school funding was on the minds of both candidates and voters in the weeks leading up to Aug. 23.
“I don’t think there’s a bigger thing we could talk about,” Murphy said.
It’s only one of the many priorities Mayor-elect Frank Brocato is thinking about in the weeks before his inauguration in November. As he is not yet in office, Brocato did not talk a lot of specifics. However, education was one of the main points in his campaign — along with public safety and creating a city master plan — and he said nothing about that has changed since election day.
“We’re going to work with them to get them in the black, and I committed that to them,” Brocato said. “What that number will be? I don’t know yet because I have seven council members there, and they are committed to doing the same thing.”
The Board of Education in September approved its budget for fiscal 2017, and Murphy stressed that what she presented to the board is a conservative plan.
While there is still a deficit, Murphy’s budget reduced that by about $9.5 million through trimming school expenses, shortening contracts and finding ways to reduce staff through attrition rather than layoffs.
In total, 26 jobs were cut this year, including 11 fewer bus drivers, school officials said. Some new employees who were hired to replace others aren’t getting paid as much, Murphy said.
School officials plan to continue looking for places to cut expenses, potentially including athletic and extracurricular supplements, Murphy said. The 2017 budget includes $1.3 million for athletic coaching supplements and another $1 million for non-academic supplements such as those given to the math and debate team coaches.
Murphy said she has instructed principals that they soon will have to offer fresh justification for the amount paid for each supplement.
Also, school officials will examine Hoover’s practice of paying supplements as a percentage of employees’ base pay rather than as a flat amount per job, Murphy said.
Brocato said Murphy has committed all along that “she’s not looking for anybody’s handouts. She’s going to get her house in order. She continues to have that philosophy, and I appreciate that.”
The budget also allows no room for expansion or facility improvements.
“The budget that I’ve put before our public and before our board isn’t a budget that’s a growth model for growing new opportunities, growing new electives, adding additional academic experiences for our students,” Murphy said in a separate interview. “It is absolutely culled down to the necessities.”
While Murphy believes this year’s cuts won’t impact the quality of Hoover students’ education, the next step to reduce the deficit in 2018 is either finding more revenue or making more cuts. And if more cuts are in order, Murphy expects many will come from the largest portion of the budget: personnel. Staffing costs account for roughly 82 percent of the total $169.9 million budget. At that point, reducing staff likely means larger classroom size or cutting electives.
“It’s going to hurt who we are,” Murphy said.
Revenues already have dropped from $13,715 per student in fiscal 2008 to an estimated $12,209 per student for 2017, school system records show.
City budget talks
Budget talks are also underway at city hall, and Brocato expects to be part of that process after inauguration. He said he’ll have to balance education along with other city and personal priorities: public safety, roadwork, sidewalks, creating green spaces, economic development and building a city master plan.
Currently, city funding for the school system sits at about $2.4 million. Increasing that contribution means either finding new revenue or taking from other areas of the budget. Brocato said he does not feel like a tax increase to fund schools is the right move at this time.
“I think that we’ve asked Dr. Murphy to look at her house and get it in order, and I think we have to do the same thing on our side and make sure we’ve done everything correctly, and we are being good stewards of the money the citizens of Hoover already provide before we go out and ask for more,” Brocato said. “I don’t even want to put it on the table because we’re not there yet.”
Brocato said he’d like to reduce expenses first, but find a way to do so without negatively impacting the city. If the budget came up short for all the projects the city wants to fund, Brocato said, his approach wouldn’t necessarily be about picking one department over another. He said he would prefer temporary fixes or short-term delays so that everything can get accomplished over time.
“In my 40 years, I’ve never seen us be faced with that sort of critical situation where I couldn’t delay something or patch something,” Brocato said.
Murphy agreed that education funding shouldn’t necessarily occur at the expense of other city services.
“Under no circumstances am I a superintendent who says, ‘Please take away from the police and the fire, and please make sure we take care of kids and leave a bunch of potholes in our roads.’ We’ve got to figure out a way to do it all,” Murphy said.
The problem will be finding the right number for the city to contribute. An extra $1.9 million would cover Hoover City Schools’ deficit, but Murphy pointed out that it would not leave room for expansion or new programs.
“$2 million puts a Band-Aid on it,” Murphy said. “So $2 million just gets you to the starting line, because right now we’re several yards off the starting line. Two million takes us to the starting line, and then if we really want to be productive and run a great race, then I think we’re going to have to invest even more money than that in the schools in order to continue to be Hoover.”
‘Who do we want to be?’
During rezoning meetings in 2015, Murphy at one point mentioned a $12 million figure that she would like to see from the city. Murphy said that number may not be exactly the right one — it depends on what Hoover residents, city officials and school staff want in terms of school system growth.
Murphy said a question needs to be answered before a dollar figure can be decided: “Who do we want to be?”
After the cuts this year to reduce the deficit, Murphy said she feels like the school system has reeled in as much as it can without significant negative impacts, and it is now the city’s turn to look at its budget. She noted that she sees a disconnect between a school system that takes $11-13 million per month to run and a city contributing $2 million per year.
“Clearly, if it costs us $11 million, plus or minus, a month to run this school district, it’s difficult in my mind to believe that the best that we can do for our children is $2 million from our city a year. I’ve been honest about that; I’ve said it. I’m not going to back off from it now,” Murphy said.
There are some long-term financial needs for the school system that also need to be addressed, school officials have said. Personnel costs continue to increase, and debt payments will rise by $4.4 million a year in fiscal 2018 and another $8.6 million a year in 2026, financial records show.
Plus, additional school facilities could be needed to handle enrollment growth. Hoover High School, even with a $13.5 million 36-classroom addition that opened in 2013, already is quickly nearing capacity, with more than 2,900 students this year. School officials must decide whether to add more room at Hoover or Spain Park high schools, or start planning for a third high school.
Brocato has promised a meeting with Murphy 30 days after taking the mayor’s office. It will likely be the first of many between the pair, as well as the rest of the council, to define the path for the school system, the price tag for that path and how the city of Hoover will contribute to it.
Both Brocato and Murphy said a “thoughtful” approach is needed to accomplish this, as well as the ability to “disagree agreeably,” as Murphy put it. Each said separately that they think the 2016-20 council is up to the task.
“The most important thing we can do is have a spirit of cooperation among each other,” Brocato said.
However, the job of resolving Hoover City Schools’ funding is not one that can wait any longer, Murphy said.
“Talk’s cheap. Rhetoric comes at no cost,” Murphy said. “It’s time for us to put up. It’s time for us to get it done.”