White River Schools cuts will include elementary music, PE

As part of its budget reductions, the White River School District will drop its elementary physical education and music programs.

Punctuated by periods of silence and contemplation, Superintendent Tom Lockyer made the announcement to the White River School Board at its Feb. 25 meeting, where he and staff laid out its plan to trim $3.4 million from the 2009-10 school budget.

“It’s sad,” Board member Jean Lacy said. “It’s something we have to give up.”

Earlier, district officials announced they would combine two of the district’s smaller elementary schools – Wilkeson and Wickersham School of Discovery – and reduce teaching staff by approximately 21.

Those plans will continue.

“We know people won’t agree with us, but these are the best decisions we could make,” said Lockyer, who added he appreciated the White River teachers union’s willingness to meet with the district. The recommendations presented to the board are those of principals, central office administrative staff, the cabinet and Lockyer. “There isn’t a school district in the state that isn’t looking at the same things we’re looking at.

“These are decisions none of us wanted to make,” Lockyer said. During the past two years, White River has already made millions of dollars in cuts and the district’s flexibility is gone. Lockyer said.

Add to that a predicted drop in enrollment of 200 students in the fall, obligated increases in negotiated agreements and an anticipated decrease in state funding, and the district is in crisis mode. Lockyer said he and district leaders have been keeping close tabs on the situation and it’s not getting brighter.

“Districts across the state have begun to plan for the deepening reductions they face,” said Lockyer, who produced a long list of local districts making similar or deeper cuts. “To insinuate that what we are doing is premature and not necessary only reflects a lack of awareness and resolve to understand the depth of the issue. If the nation is in economic crisis and the state is in economic crisis, it is certainly a reality that public education is in a state of crisis. School districts across the state are announcing their budget reductions.”

An Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction video conference Feb. 24 regarding federal stimulus money didn’t look promising, Lockyer reported. The district anticipates getting some helpful federal dollars in the form of special education and Title I, but other money will be on an application basis and although White River certainly has need or is poised to be in the forefront with some of its programs, he noted, so does every other district in the state that will be scrambling for that money too.

“Ethically or morally, I don’t think we can wait to let people know,” Lockyer said regarding the pending job cuts. “They have to make choices. We’re out in front of this a little bit. What we don’t want to do is wait until the eleventh hour. We’re trying to be professional about it.”

The largest reductions will come in people – $1.8 million worth. Certificated staff will be let go, some by attrition, but many because their programs will no longer exist like the high school’s digitools and personal choices programs, which amount to approximately five teachers; elementary music and physical education equals almost seven jobs. Retooling middle school P.E. will present the loss of almost three teachers. Two retire/rehire teachers at the high school are on the list of reductions. The remainder, approximately four, will likely be at the elementary level, depending on student numbers.

Classified staff, which took the brunt of last year’s cuts, will need to trim down slightly, to the tune of approximately $256,000.

“Knowing that 85 percent of the budget is people doesn’t make it easy,” Board President Denise Vogel said.

District Human Resources Director Keith Banks said everyone will likely be notified before April 1, although some have already learned their fate.

Administrative staff will also be trimmed.

With the retirement of Principal Carolyn Rembert, who has been serving as leader to both Wilkeson and Wickersham School of Discovery this year, District Professional Development Director John Hellwich will take over the helm of Wilkeson, while resuming his current duties.

Mountain Meadow Principal Wayne Watanabe, who is in a retire/rehire position, will not be back. His post will be filled internally, but will not be announced until late March. The high school, which lost its athletic director and career and technical adviser in the budgeting process, is in the process of restructuring its administrative team. Those announcements are set for April. Hellwich’s additional responsibilities combined with the other districtwide administrative moves are expected to save the district $288,000.

The merging of the two schools is expected to save the district $310,000.

The district will also relocate its Collins Alternative Programs, although a destinatin has yet to be determined. Collins programs, a cooperative with Enumclaw, Sumner and Orting, currently leases buildings from the state Department of Health and Social Services near Rainier State School. This move is expected to save the district $85,700.

The district expects to lose $193,000 in grants and reductions that would cover math and science, professional development, programs for highly capable students and Business Town. These programs will not be funded through other sources at this time.

There are also anticipated losses in Initiative 728 money, which is tied directly to staff and professional development. Those numbers are not clear yet.

With the current market, the district’s tree farm isn’t even a revenue producer right now.

With its financial reserves dwindling to near nothing, the district has been under the watchful eye of the state. The Puget Sound Educational Service District, assigned to monitor White River’s financial situation, has been helping with the process.

“We have received no letter that has taken us off the watch list,” Lockyer said.

The White River School Board has charged Lockyer with building back the district’s reserve and asked how that process was going.

“We’re making every effort to meet the board’s 5 percent reserve, but it’s extremely difficult,” Lockyer said.

As gloomy as the forecast was, district leaders are still hopeful grant money will come through to cover some programs and professional development opportunities, and creative thinking will provide for others, like P.E. and music.

The district also plans to start a tuition-based prekindergarten program, which will pay for itself and hopefully keep students, and maybe some teachers, in the district.

Additionally, the district is planning to abandon the old post office site in downtown Buckley, which it has been using for Collins Programs’ online learning, and sell that property.

“We’re hoping. We’re presenting the worst-case scenario,” Banks said, noting it’s easier to add programs back, than have to cut more.

“These are programs that we value,” board member John McArtor said.

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