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South Whidbey School Board looks at reduced budget for next year

Another year, another battered budget.

For the fifth straight year, the South Whidbey School Board will make budget cuts. Board members will review the spending plan for the 2010-11 school year at their meeting tonight, and district officials are expected to approve a $20.7 million budget that includes fewer teachers and reduced programs.

The proposed budget for the coming year is roughly $1.3 million less than the 2009-10 budget, prompted largely by the continuing drop in student enrollment in district classrooms. The South Whidbey School District is forecasting the second-largest enrollment drop in its history — officials expect a total of

122 fewer students next year — but the magnitude of next year’s spending reductions will outpace those of this year, when the district lost 161 students.

Fewer students means less money from Olympia; the district receives roughly $5,400 per student in education money from the state.

“This is not a new process for us. We have been cutting since 2005,” said Dan Poolman, business manager for the school district.

“Each year we’ve had to reduce our budget, and it’s been a continuing problem with enrollment,” he said. “This year, the cuts are larger.”

Part of the drop in spending compared to previous years is due to the loss of state funding from Initiative 728, the ballot measure approved by voters in November 2000 to reduce class sizes in Washington schools. Also gone is more than $220,000 from federal stimulus money that helped backfill lost revenues in the 2009-10 budget.

Total expenditures will drop from $22.1 million to $20.7 million next year. By comparison, spending dropped from $22.2 million in the 2008-09 budget to to $22.1 million in this year's budget.

Because the largest chunk of the district budget - roughly 82 percent - is devoted to employee pay, much of the spending reductions in the proposed budget revolve around staff cuts.

"There's not a lot of things that aren't tied to people, which is the unfortunate piece of it," Poolman said.

The size of the district's workforce will drop from the equivalent of 175 full-time jobs this year to roughly 155 full-time positions next year.

Most of the cuts will be made in the classroom. The equivalent of 9.36 full-time positions will be cut from the district's certificated staff (which includes teachers, counselors and librarians), and the equivalent of 8.84 full-time jobs for classified staff (which includes support staff, bus drivers and custodians) will also be chopped. The equivalent of two full-time jobs in the district's administrative staff will also be cut.

The district began alerting employees who were expected to lose their jobs in mid-April.

The number of jobs in the school district has dropped steadily since 2004, and the proposed cuts are slightly below the record cuts made in the 2005-06 budget, when the equivalent of 20.5 full-time jobs were eliminated. Next year's number is 20.2.

The equivalent of nearly 80 full-time jobs have been lost in the school district during the past decade.

"It's been a substantial reduction over the years," Poolman said.

Student enrollment has dropped each year since it hit a peak of 2,264 students in 1999-2000. District officials estimate enrollment will total 1,473 students next year, and the district's budget will continue to shrink along with the student population.

"At this point, there's nothing much left in the non-employee costs, because we've already reduced most of those," he said. "It all comes down to personnel. And the effect is we have reduced staffing in the buildings in a lot of different categories."

District officials say the sour economy is much to blame for the decline in the student population.

"The theory is that it's the economy; the lack of jobs, the cost of housing," Poolman said, adding that school officials have interviewed some of those leaving the district to find out why their children would no longer be in school.

"They were moving because of work," he said.

The school board will meet at 6:30 p.m. tonight in the community room at South Whidbey Elementary School. District officials will get a presentation on the 2010-11 budget, and a public hearing will follow. The school board is expected to vote on a budget resolution later in the meeting.

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