School budget cuts planned for next year

The South Whidbey School District is planning to cut a million dollars out of next year’s budget.

But that may be just the start as declining enrollment, escalating costs and the loss of state money for reduced class sizes looms on the horizon.

The effect of that cut on the district’s plans to shut down the primary school was the subject of a school board workshop Wednesday with members of the long-range facility-use planning committee.

What programs or how many district jobs will be affected by the cuts are big unknowns, according to business manager Dan Poolman.

“The governor’s budget will be released on Dec. 20 and that will tell us whether I-728 funds will be taken away,” he said. “That’s a huge amount of money for us, about $850,000.”

In November 2000, Washington state voters approved an initiative to use lottery-based funds for schools. Under the measure, school districts are authorized to use the money to reduce class size, offer extended learning opportunities, provide additional professional development for educators and give early assistance for children who need pre-kindergarten support.

While the state has increased the amount of money per student under the provisions of Initiative 728 over the years, reduced enrollment means the actual dollars are lower this year.

Projected revenue to the district will drop in 2009 to $844,736 from the $871,650 that was received in 2008 because of lower enrollment.

Or it might drop down to zero.

“The state is in financial trouble,” District Superintendent Fred McCarthy told school board members. “The word is that Gov. Gregoire may be forced to re-direct I-728 money to meet obligations in other areas. If that happens, class sizes will increase, an event no one wants to see happen.”

He said that the district will conduct a survey on repairs and deferred maintenance for each building by late spring. If state money is lost and class sizes expand, that affects the number of classrooms needed as well as teaching staff.

“We need to see an accurate picture of the costs involved in upgrading each building,” he added.

District officials continue to deal with the hard reality of declining enrollment.

From September 2008 to June 2009, officials project a total of 1,759, or 48 fewer children in local classrooms. Because the state provides $5,382 per student, the district expects a drop in revenue of $258,000.

But by the year 2010, that projected enrollment will drop by another 112 students for a net loss of $603,000.

Combined with reductions in federal dollars and loss of I-728 money, the district faces a loss of $1.5 million, not counting increased costs due to overhead and salary adjustments.

Nor does that number include the loss of $16,000 in federal dollars next year for the gifted-student program.

State money provides 71.2 percent of school funding. Local tax dollars provide 22.8 percent while the federal government adds 5.7 percent.

Over the past several years, the board has been looking at ways to cut costs. The facility committee originally recommended shutting down the primary school by combining grades kindergarten through four at the intermediate school and adding grade five to Langley Middle School.

The empty school could be leased to community organizations to create a revenue stream. Island County Senior Services and the South Whidbey Parks & Recreation District have expressed interest in leasing space for their programs, district officials said.

The district is still studying its options.

“No decisions have been made yet on which grades will be moved,” said board member Steven Scoles. “Moving an entire grade level from one building to another is a major step, and we want to be extremely careful how we proceed.”

The plan to vacate the primary school ran into a roadblock when it was learned a retrofit at the Langley Middle School might be required to make it earthquake-proof.

It will cost $2.2 million to bring the school up to current standards, according to the district’s revised estimates.

Board chairman Fred O’Neal said that engineering surveys show the school is basically safe and that, if it were built today, would cost close to $19 million.

The facilities committee will prepare a report for the March 2009 board meeting with their best assessment of which road to take.

Elementary School Principal Jamie Boyd said that the sooner her staff knows whether the school would be K-4 or K-5, the easier it will be to find ways to solve any problems.

“We need the time to do it and to do it well,” she said.

Intermediate school teacher Jan McNeely asked the board to pay closer attention to how changes might impact staff.

“It is stressful teaching in this uncertain climate,” she said. “We don’t want to see our adult agendas get in the way of teaching children the best way we can.”

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