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Local school districts facing tough financial times

By Brenda Sexton, The Courier-Herald

Both the Enumclaw and White River school boards and administration met recently to discuss upcoming budgets and options for trimming more than $1 million out of each.

In an effort to keep local folks employed and programs alive, both districts are shuffling current staff to fill gaps, putting the hiring of new employees, when possible, on hold and delaying textbook purchases as just a few creative accounting methods to make ends meet.

The cuts are partially due, for Enumclaw, to a drop in enrollment, and for White River, a flattening of enrollment where an increase was originally planned. Both districts, and those around the state, were hit with increases doled out from Olympia like higher salary increases for certificated and classified staff, benefit increases, cuts in the formula the state uses for K-4 funding, rising healthcare costs and more.

Both boards are currently examining their options and will look at making those decisions concrete in the coming weeks. Budgets for the coming year are typically approved in August.

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Enumclaw: Joining hosts of school districts across the area, the Enumclaw School Board and district administrators are looking to trim $1.7 million from the upcoming budget as a result of state funding shortfalls and continuing enrollment declines.

"It's astounding how many districts are running parallel," Enumclaw Superintendent Art Jarvis said.

The board and administrators ironed out options for the cuts at a study session May 3 at the district office and is planning more discussion at its regular meeting at 7 p.m. Monday at the district office.

At the meeting, Tim Madden, district director of business and operations, explained in spite of reduced payroll, state funding has failed to provide money to pay for increases in payroll taxes and benefits, and only partially funded announced salary increases causing substantial shortfalls for the school district.

Additionally, he said, the state has failed to offset inflationary increases in operating costs, thereby shifting those costs to local districts. Local conditions have also contributed to the financial problem. For the past five years, Enumclaw's shrinking kindergarten classes have caused elementary enrollments to fall sharply. One of the effects of that decline is smaller elementary schools that become more expensive to operate, district officials said.

The district is planning no Reduction in Force (RIF) for teaching and certificated staff, but through attrition, the district has identified positions that can be eliminated or reduced. Those include partial reductions in counseling, speech pathology and music, all at the elementary schools. Middle schools with fewer students will mean reductions of secretarial hours and fewer teachers. Enumclaw's middle schools were already hit with reductions last year as a counseling and librarian position were not filled.

Curriculum changes that were prompting rumors recently at the middle school level are more an alignment issue, not a direct budget cut, Jarvis explained. The middle school population, he said, is dwindling. Thunder Mountain Middle School, for example, has the potential to drop 10 percent of its enrollment this fall, falling from 700 to the low 600s.

Enumclaw Middle School Principal Steve Rabb said his projected enrollment for next year is 578 students for all three grades. As enrollment drops, he explained, staff drops and so do some course offerings.

Rabb has been fending off rumors his school was dropping its drama program. There may be less offerings, but not a drop, he said.

There is no master schedule at this point, he said, but it looks like EMS will be able to offer many programs in the arts including instrumental and vocal music, drama, an after-school drama program, band, orchestra, art and maybe even opera. But it's not set in stone. A tentative schedule has to go through the schools staff leadership team and also must get a look from the district's secondary curriculum group.

Back at the district level, the board and administration will try to make up dollars by eliminating two full-time administrative positions and a reduction of another from full-time to 8/10ths.

District Foundations Project Director Jill Burnes' position will be eliminated and she will be moved to assistant principal at Enumclaw High School to replace retiring Ann Baker. According to Jarvis, the district debated about whether to fill Bakers' position, but felt with the additional work for the incoming freshman who must meet higher graduation standards for 2008 and the continued reinvention process, it was wise to fill that position. He said Burnes served as an administrator for the Federal Way School District and is finishing her superintendent credentials, which will allow her to qualify for any position in the district.

"I'm very comfortable making that assignment," Jarvis said. "Jill is an extraordinary, talented administrator."

The district will also eliminate Gail Miller's position. Miller was working with the Enumclaw School District as part of a partnership with Seattle Pacific University and the Gates Foundation in the role of visiting professor working with staff and student teachers. Her stay was grant funded and will not be covered or continued with district funds.

District Director of Human Resources and Planning LeaAnna Portmann, who is part of the state's retire-rehire plan, will spend less time at her position to save the district money.

In addition, the special education coordinator position will be reduced by half. The facilities maintenance department will be reduced by one staff member, and it will lose secretarial support. District budget reductions for supplies, materials and equipment will affect technology and administrative offices, food services and athletics.

School programs affected by cuts include the elimination of supplemental literacy schools, the literacy center and part-time literacy support teachers. District budgets supporting textbook purchases have been targeted for reductions for one year; special education preschool classrooms will be consolidated into a single location at Southwood Elementary School; and the transportation department, which has seen its deficit steadily increasing, is examining all routes and schedules to look for potential savings.

Currently retirees are not scheduled for rehire, but that could change as positions open.

The district also announced, in accordance with legislative cutbacks and intent, I-728 funding will continue to be reduced in supplemental areas such as extended learning opportunities, and instead will be used to fund teaching positions. The district was relying on I-728 money to keep full-day kindergarten classes small by hiring additional teachers and will continue.

"As long as we continue to see the district caught in enrollment declines, state funding shortfalls, and increasing costs for operations, there will be annual reductions" Jarvis said. "In virtually every area we continue to see the state finding solutions to their shortfall by passing costs to the local districts. I would predict that Washington citizens will continue to see headlines similar to those so evident this spring, announcing budget cuts in school district after school district. We have taken our reserve funds (rainy day funds) from a healthy level to a bare minimum. Those districts without a significant reserve are already cutting teachers. I have faith that we will make it through the tough times but it is truly painful. This is a great staff and they will make it work."

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White River: White River School Board members took the first step in making some tough decisions May 5 as they pondered how to cut $1.3 million from the upcoming budget to cover budget shortfalls from the state and a flattening enrollment.

"There isn't a district in this area that's not going through this," Superintendent Jay Hambly told the group gathered for a special meeting at the board room in Buckley. They will meet again tonight (Wednesday) for more discussion at their regular meeting. Start time is 6 p.m. in the board room.

The cuts fall on the heels of nearly $600,000 in cuts made mostly at the district administration level last year in anticipation of opening Glacier Middle School. Hambly does not anticipate this to be the only year for reductions, but hopes these suggestions will get the district through next year.

The opening of a second middle school - Glacier Middle School on the campus of the former high school - has been both a blessing and a burden.

Starting with the opening of Glacier Middle School, district Executive Director of Business Services Susan Smith Leland set the stage for school board members by outlining some of the additional cost of starting a school like the approximately $500,000 to staff it, along with textbooks, equipment, furniture and other items. Most of which can be covered with one-time start up money from the levy. However, there are other costs like the estimated additional $150,000 a year in utility costs.

"We knew opening a school wouldn't be cheap, but we planned for that," Hambly said. But state funding, and the lack thereof, has thrown the district a curve and it is scrambling to find creative ways to recover.

Board members are looking at a proposal from the administration that would pay a portion of the middle school start up costs with $300,000 from the capital project fund.

This will also be the first year the district will be billed for insurance coverage, to the tune of $100,000, at the new high school, Leland explained.

There are also increases from the state in insurance and salaries. Approximately 85 percent of the district's budget is salary and benefits, and, Smith pointed out, teacher and transportation contracts are due for bargaining.

Growth, Hambly explained, was not providing the student base anticipated. He explained that even adding a cushion of 50 students for growth next year, the district will still come up short on projections. He said the housing developments are not bringing in children or are bringing in far less students than anticipated.

One piece of good news is the district has $152,000 in unallocated one-time-only money it can throw into the pot.

To help trim fat, administrators are suggesting a delay in major textbook purchases for two years, except for social studies, health and sixth- through 10th-grade reading, which are currently under way.

Hambly also outlined a number cuts, many which involve shuffling staff or leaving vacant positions unfilled.

The district does not plan to hire a maintenance person for a current opening and will eliminate a distance learning center position, moving that employee to a high school transitions opening. The district will eliminate a part-time nurse position and will not hire a second middle school assistant principal, opting rather for the two schools to share an assistant.

The district will eliminate two elementary teachers positions, funded with I-728 money, used for class reduction at the elementary level, and move them to the middle school level to fill openings there.

Each middle school, which requested one head secretary and three assistants, will get one head secretary and two assistants, and one of those assistants will be moved from another area in the district eliminating a position.

Elementary library assistants will be eliminated and moved to cover the middle schools, which will not receive full-time librarians.

Paraeducator time will be reduced by pulling two posted, but unfilled, positions.

"This allows us to maintain as many employees as possible without RIFfing (Reduction in Force)," Hambly said.

The district will also close its daycare at Collins High School. Leland explained the daycare has seen dwindling numbers over the past few years and has chosen to work with community facilities to meet the needs of students with children. Daycare staff is expected to move to fill openings at the high school daycare.

The district will also reduce elementary and middle school building budgets, funds that cover photocopies, laminating and other expenses, by 5 percent. Non-employee related expenses will be cut by 10 percent across the district.

Administrators considered eliminating C-team sports, but will instead cut their transportation budget.

Going hand-in-hand, administrators are recommending the district raise athletic user fees at both the middle and high school level from either $25 to $35 or $25 to $50 per sport, per athlete. School board members hesitated to pass on higher fees to families in the district. Hambly said White River's fees are among the lowest in the area. Board member Tony Abeyta suggested perhaps a combination of fees that would be less for C-team participants.

Smith said $300,000 of general fund money is spent on coaches salaries. Associated Student Body funds, where the user fees go, cover uniforms and equipment. Additional moneys collected by increases would flow into the general fund to cover expenses like coaches' salaries.

The district is also planning to move after-school activity transportation to I-728.

Brenda Sexton can be reached at bsexton@courierherald.com

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