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Legislature leaves school district guessing

"Budgeting is more of a guessing game than ever for the South Whidbey School District this year.Usually by now, the district knows how much state money will be provided. But as the school board met Tuesday night, the Legislature was taking a week off before commencing its second special session next week to struggle some more with the budget. So the school district can only guess what will occur.Another big unknown is the cost of electricity. School officials on South Whidbey see power rates skyrocketing all around them, but so far Puget Sound Energy hasn't raised its rates, and can't until Jan. 1 of next year.But budgets have to be prepared, so Martin Laster, superintendent of schools, presented the first draft of the budget summary on Tuesday.Laster relied on several assumptions, among them: The state will provide $194 per student for class size reduction, as mandated by voters last November; state block grants will be cut by one-third; attendance districtwide will be down 70 students; utility costs, including electricity, will increase 40 percent next year; the state's Better Schools funding will be eliminated, except for K-4 staffing; and the state will fund cost of living increases (another voter mandate) only for state supported teachers.Declining enrollment is projected as a long-term problem for South Whidbey schools. If next year's estimate of 70 fewer students proves accurate, it will cost the district about $280,000 in state funding. By 2010, the district estimates there will be 250 fewer students than today. Those estimates also come from outside sources, Laster said. It's more than us saying we're going to decline.Laster pointed out several problem areas where the district receives less from the state than it costs to run the program. Special education costs $324,606 more than the state provides; transportation costs exceed revenues by $163,430; and food services falls short by $27,464. Efforts are being made to reduce costs in all areas.Based on his best guesses, Laster projects next year's school budget will support all existing programs with a little money left over: $24,738 to be exact.The final budget is scheduled to be approved by the school board in July. Assuming, of course, the Legislature has adjourned by then. "

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