South Whidbey schools forecast $1.9 million gap

The bottom line is brutal.

The South Whidbey School District is facing the biggest enrollment decline in its history coupled with the largest decrease in revenues ever recorded.

School officials are forecasting a drop of 139 students for the 2009-2010 school year and a $1.9 million shortfall out of the district’s $17 million budget, an 11-percent reduction. The announcement was made at a meeting for teaching and support staff members last week.

“The combination of declining enrollment and a recession that has exceeded anyone’s expectations will force us to make some very tough decisions in the months ahead,” said School Superintendent Fred McCarthy.

“The economy has caused the decline to accelerate,” he added. “Because the state’s revenue is based on sales and property taxes, the state government has less money to give us.”

In January alone, the district lost 17 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, a mid-semester drop that came as a surprise.

“The feedback I got was that a number of families were forced to leave the county or state in search of jobs,” said business manager Dan Poolman.

Fewer children were expected next year, but not to this degree, Poolman added.

“Over the past 10 years, there has been a 29-percent decrease in the number of students enrolled,” he explained.

The direct result is a drop of $770,000 in revenue that the state pays the district, plus other reductions in state revenue of $916,000 and potential state-mandated salary increases of $191,000. South Whidbey will have to make serious cuts in virtually all areas, district officials said.

When all is said and done, the biggest line item in the district’s budget is employee salaries. Because salaries represent 83 percent of the budget, the biggest ax will fall on staffing, both teachers and support personnel.

The district must reduce the staff to cover a roughly $1.3 million shortfall. How that translates to which employees might lose their jobs is an unknown factor.

The first reduction-in-force notices will be sent out on April 15 and the final notices one month later, after a May 13 school board review. McCarthy noted there are only a few retirements expected this year, so attrition won’t cover the problem.

McCarthy said the district can’t rely on federal stimulus funds, the use of which is severely curtailed. South Whidbey will receive $58,000 in additional money that can only be used for facility upgrades, plus $246,000 annually for special education funds.

School workers have started making suggestions on how to cut costs.

During the meeting last week, one idea centered on consolidating the two major bus runs into one to accommodate a 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. class day, should the school board approve that change.

This would effectively cut down the hours worked by district bus drivers to three hours daily.

Senior driver Sue Harris has been driving since 1981 and now works up to eight hours each day, though the average for all drivers is six.

“Many of us cannot afford to stay under those conditions,” she said. “We have a well-oiled machine and it would be sad to lose some of our best and most experienced drivers.”

Poolman said the idea is just one of many possibilities the district is exploring.

McCarthy agreed there is an emotional factor in this crisis that can’t help but affect employees and their families.

“We are attempting to apply rational, methodical resolutions to these tough questions,” he said. “We are having meetings weekly to deal with the budget, while maintaining the highest possible level of service to our students.”

The district is working on plans to meet the budget crunch.

“Everything is on the table,” Poolman said. “Everything.”

The first step is to draw down the fund balance by $300,000 — money set aside for cash flow and emergencies — to cover expenditures next year. Another

$200,000 will be saved from the teaching and learning budget and those items affecting curriculum.

“We had expected to upgrade our social studies books next year, but that is on hold,” McCarthy said.

Administrators have a list of items to make the district run more efficiently, including consolidating the primary and intermediate schools, cuts in food service, transportation savings, combining administrative duties and eliminating some support services.

“The more we can identify ways to save money, the better we can soften the impact on employees,” McCarthy said.

The schools will look at every program offered, from field trips to sports and out-of-state travel. Each principal has been asked to identify programs that can be trimmed or eliminated by the end of the school year. Already, middle school coaches, in conjunction with the Cascade Conference, intend to reduce the number of games.

Athletic director John Patton said there will be more double-headers to save on bus trips, vans will be used whenever possible and limits will be set on the number of games in the season for each sport.

School board chairman Fred O’Neal is concerned that people may not understand that the district was already in bad shape from declining enrollment.

“But we have a healthy fund balance and can weather this storm better than the estimated 40 out of 196 Washington school districts that may be bankrupt next year,” O’Neal said.

“Through it all, the welfare and education of our children must remain the number one priority.”

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