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Board seeks budget cuts in schools

South Whidbey School District administrators have come up with a plan to help save the district $739,094 -- without cutting back on teachers.

Sort of.

Budget-boosting measures that could include more expensive meals in the lunchroom, less custodial work and not hiring new teachers to replace retirees could bring the district within $110,000 of filling an $850,000 cash gap predicted for the 2003-2004 school year. The shortfall is due largely to a loss of funding from the state and dropping enrollment.

In an attempt to save teachers' jobs, the administrators working with department supervisors and the South Whidbey Board of Education developed a list of program reductions over the past month that, if adopted, would be a big step toward saving teaching positions.

The list is a work in progress and did not stop notification to 30 teachers Monday that they may be laid off. Notification by that date was required by the union contract between teachers and the school district, even though a final list of layoffs won't come out until May 15.

Superintendent Martin Laster said this week that not all the teachers who received notices will necessarily be laid off.

"We are working aggressively to avoid that by looking for additional reductions from other areas," he said. "We are getting a lot of good ideas submitted to us from school personnel."

"We have another month to find ways to make up the loss."

Bayview high school teacher and president of SWEA, the teachers union Scott Mauk is in total alignment with the superintendent. He said any layoff, called a reduction in force or RIF in the teaching profession, will be tempered by other cuts.

"It is unlikely that all the people who received notification will be RIFed," he said. "But there will be program sacrifices, larger classes and loss of budget for materials and travel."

Even though he believes district administrators are working to find other ways to trim the budget, Mauk said RIF notices -- even if nothing comes of them -- are bad for teacher morale.

"It is a humiliating experience to get a certified letter that you might lose your job especially when teachers work so hard and often not appreciated," he said.

Even if no one is laid off, school will undoubtedly come back into session with fewer teachers in September. The largest savings in the list administrators are crafting is a $228,525 line item that could come by not hiring new teachers to replace those who are retiring or those on leave. Other potential cuts include delaying the adoption of a new langrage arts curriculum at middle and high schools and reducing custodian work hours.

Also on the table are possible cuts at the district office. This is the only reduction not endorsed unanimously by district administrators. Cutbacks at the office could involve eliminating a full-time administrative employee, getting rid of an employee assistance program and ending out-of-state administrative travel.

Other items on the cutting table include hiring a nursing employee to eliminate a service contract and ending committee stipends. More money could be saved by relocating the Learning Resource Center from Fort Casey to South Whidbey and by combining some bus routes.

Ray Gabelein, Jr., the president of the South Whidbey Board of Education, said he wants to look at the merits of programs up for elimination or cutbacks.

"I would like to look at all the programs we do have to make sure they are offering the results they were intended for," he said.

Dipping into the districts small rainy day reserve fund is not an option for filling the funding gap, at least in Gabelein's estimation. He said the $417,000 fund needs to be preserved for emergencies that cuts and planning can't cure.

"If we use that what happens if we have a major catastrophe?" he said.

South Whidbey High students are registering for next year at this time.

High school Principal Mike Johnson, who is part of the team coming up with areas to do some belt tightening, said budget cutting is not easy.

"It's not a fun time," he said. "We are trying to maintain programs for the students while looking at ways to be more efficient."

State cutbacks will not only affect direct funding, but levy funding as well, since levy dollars are tied what the legislature gives the schools.

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