School budget shortfall climbs

Things are bad, and they aren’t getting better anytime soon.

If the South Whidbey School Board was hoping the gloomy financial forecast had improved over the past month, they were sorely disappointed Wednesday.

Dan Poolman, business manager for the South Whidbey School District, explained that the district’s 2009-2010 budget shortfall has been adjusted upward to $1.85 million, partly as a result of the drastic loss of Initiative 728 money from the state.

The reduction works out to a loss of $327 per student, which means a total loss of $613,707 in revenue that the district won’t see next year.

“The state is in financial trouble,” District Superintendent Fred McCarthy told school board members. “Gov. Gregoire has been forced to re-direct I-728 money to meet obligations in other areas.”

It was an assessment that no one at the school board’s workshop Wednesday was happy to hear.

But the 65 teachers and parents present had some ideas to reduce expenses, maybe enough to save the jobs of 18 teachers still in real danger of losing them.

Shelly Ackerman thinks the school bus is one answer. The state pays money to the district based on ridership numbers during a single week in October.

“If the PTA got the word out and every kid rode the bus, that would add $300,000,” she said.

Middle school teacher Charley Snelling thinks administrative costs are too high. “Maybe we have too many chiefs for our reduced circumstances,” he said.

McCarthy was quick to note that the district recorded $627,000 in administration expenses in 2003, which dropped to $617,000 in 2008.

“If anything, this district has been under-administered for some time,” McCarthy said. “We have been running, and will continue to run, a very lean operation.”

McCarthy reminded the audience that the district’s precarious financial footing was due to a historic drop in enrollment; the schools have seen a 29 percent decline over the past 10 years.

“When I was hired, the board told me they wanted two things; first to not let the district go bankrupt and second, to work toward a world-class public school system for South Whidbey,” McCarthy said.

“We’re in an unstable environment in terms of enrollment,” he said.

Board president Fred O’Neal noted that there is no guarantee of state or federal money in the future to handle emergencies that may arise. The district maintains a cash reserve, or fund balance, representing 8 percent of the district’s $17 million annual budget.

The board has dropped the cash reserve by 2 percent, but O’Neal insisted it won’t be cut further. Noting that 35 school districts in the state are broke, he said 6 percent is an absolute minimum for a financially healthy future.

“That fund balance will be increasingly vital,” he said.

Snelling wasn’t done.

“Why can’t we reduce salaries to keep teachers here and class sizes low?” he asked.

McCarthy said he didn’t want to go down that road.

“If I proposed a 10 percent cut and next year there was no stimulus money and I had to ask again, resentment would build up among our employees,” McCarthy said. “The financial climate in education will remain lean for several years.”

Donna Riley, a parent, was a member of the facilities committee that authored a report in January 2008 that suggested the primary school could be closed. She reminded the board of a “minority report” submitted at the same time that said Langley Middle School and the district’s administrative center next door could be shut down as well.

“The idea was to create a genuine junior and senior high atmosphere because both the middle and high schools were operating at 50 percent of their designed capacity,” she said.

Riley noted the report was aware of the high cost of renovating the middle school, which was built in 1935.

“Since then, the seismic survey came out that said it would cost $2.3 million for a refit just to bring the school up to safe standards,” she added.

“I ask that you consider the minority report as a ‘Plan C’ alternative to keeping middle schoolers at the primary school,” she said.

In response to criticisms the district isn’t communicating with the community as well as it could, McCarthy announced he would be sending out surveysrelated to the budget crisis each week, starting May 18.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 3, the school board will hold a third workshop at the elementary school, this time to review the results of parent surveys.

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or

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