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Schools face staff and program cuts

An estimated $810,000 needs to come out of the South Whidbey School District budget next year, which means programs and teachers may be cut.

As the district put together some more solid 2004-05 budget numbers this past week, every teacher in the district was notified Thursday that some of them may be laid off. The district has not yet determined how many teachers might lose their jobs should budget cuts be necessary.

This would be the second major slicing of school expenditures in three years. In 2002-03, the district cut $850,000 from its projected expenditures. This was done without cutting teaching staff.

A letter from Superintendent Robert Brown informed all classroom staff that “reductions would be based on seniority within categories of employment.” Any teachers being laid off will be informed by May 15.

Brown said Friday there has been overwhelming cooperation from the staff and board.

“As a result we can begin to deal with the district’s problems,” he said

Brown said it is never easy to send out layoff notices, but “we had to take some action.” Brown has been meeting with principals, representatives from the teachers union and other district managers this week on the topic of balancing the district’s estimated $16.5 million revenue budget for the coming year. This number is up about $125,000 from the current year.

The layoff news was not unexpected. A combination of a miscalculation in the district’s fund balance last summer and a drop in enrollment during the past several years has left administrators struggling to balance the budget.

Based the financial issues, the South Whidbey Board of Education voted Monday night to take a conservative look at next year’s enrollment while preparing the 2004-05 budget. Board members, at the recommendation of the Northwest Educational Service (ESD) district supported an enrollment figure of 2,030 for the upcoming year. This is a significant drop from the district’s most recent enrollment high in 1999-2000, when 2,304 students attended South Whidbey Schools. Current enrollment is 2,115 with a teaching staff of 134. This staffing level is a seven-year low, down from 147 teachers in 2002-03.

The ESD stepped in to provide assistance to the district when the district’s former superintendent and assistant superintendent resigned last month.

Programs will see hits, too

At Monday’s meeting Ben Thomas, business manager for the district, presented an update of the budget process. First, Thomas gave some good news, say the district’s cash fund balance — which went into the red in February — should hit $250,000 by August.

South Whidbey school district has been faced with declining enrollment during the past four years. This time, however according to Jenkins, a superintendent with the ESD, South Whidbey will not be able to retain its entire teaching staff. He also said the district’s student program offerings — which include athletics, music and drama, programs like Destination Imagination and Langley Middle School’s Adventure Education program — may be targets for cuts. Brown said increasing class sizes by several students where appropriate may be considered.

On Monday, the school board further agreed to set a target fund balance of $429,000 for August 2005. Brown, appearing at his first meeting since being appointed the district’s interim superintendent, told the district’s principals — who were sitting together in front of the room — they would have a part in deciding on cuts.

“There has to be some cutting,” he said. “You will all be in on wielding the knife during (budget) meetings to identify programs.”

Tim Gordon, assistant principal for Langley Middle School, was skeptical that $810,000 could be carved from the 2004-05 budget.

“We already cut $850,000; where are we going to find the rest?” he asked.

Issues that could further affect budget development for the coming year are contingencies against possible litigation against the district by parents of special education students.

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