Superintendent suggests buyouts as way to trim budget

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - By Jonathan Hardison

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - The Birmingham School Board may be forced to get creative to try and balance next year's budget.

The superintendent, Dr. Craig Witherspoon, unveiled a budget-cutting plan Tuesday that includes controversial steps like freezing raises, closing more schools, and enticing employees to retire early.

Birmingham City Schools have actually cut the number of students they're losing every year, but the school system still has to find $23 million in savings before next year because of the loss of stimulus money and state funds.

Dr. Witherspoon said making the whole system smaller is no longer a choice, it's a must, "This is looking at that overall dollar amount we have to reduce, and what ways can we attack that and bring it down so that we get to people last."

Witherspoon's plan calls for several cost-saving measures, but there are 3 headline-grabbers.

First, he suggests freezing step increases in salaries. Secondly, there's a suggestion to consolidate at least 5 more schools beyond the 5 that are already slated to consolidate next year. Lastly, Witherspoon considers encouraging employees who have served for 25 years or who are over 60 and served for at least 10 years to retire by paying them up to $27,000 to leave early.

"It's an easy way to address some of the cuts that we have to make. Certainly if we can get individuals to voluntarily do that, it's a win-win for everyone," Witherspoon said.

"We would support any plan that would prevent laying off our members," said teacher's union rep Daryl Traylor.

Traylor isn't eligible for the retirement package but says it might be appealing to an employee who's already thinking about it. Adding, "I think for someone that's in the position and was thinking about retirement, this would help them go on and make that move. But for those that are not ready to retire? No, no."

The retirement plan seemed to get a lot of support from the school board, while  the freeze on raises and more school closings aren't as popular. The board's president says the plan has to be put in place together, not just a few pieces.

"When you look at how he has it outlined, each piece is so critical," said Phyllis Wynne. "All of this goes way beyond the austerity measures we've taken before that's kept us in the black, and now we know we're facing something we've got to do something. So it's critical we get the votes to do these things or, if they can come up with something better."

Even if the board accepts all of the superintendent's suggestions, the system would still need to find another $9 million in cuts. The board will have a special meeting next week to talk about the retirement buyout plan.

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