School districts juggle options to balance budgets

Each district finds different ways to stretch funding and cut costs.

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As Washington and Oregon lawmakers have slashed funding for state agencies and programs in the last few years, school districts have been particularly hard hit.

The upcoming school year has been no exception, and the years of cutting and doing more with less has led some districts to adopt program cuts, continue attrition and turn to layoffs to balance their budgets.

The economic recession began to hit districts in 2009, as school boards met early in the year to prepare budgets for the 2009-10 school year.

In that year alone, the Milton-Freewater School District shortened its academic year by five days, with teaching staff agreeing to the cuts to avoid layoffs or other program cuts.

Walla Walla Public Schools responded that year by eliminating its deans of students, cutting in half the number of elementary librarian positions, cutting an alternative middle school education program, as well as continuing to fill vacancies with existing staff, or leaving positions open.

The cuts came on top of unsteady enrollment in some districts, and the short-lived support of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which brought some unexpected funding but was good for only one year.

To further absorb cuts last year, the Milton-Freewater district scaled back its kindergarten program from full day to half day. The district had been paying the cost of a full-day program without state support since 2007, but could no longer maintain the program with state cuts and stagnant enrollment.

For some districts, this year's budget planning has been particularly hard, as leaders struggle to form budgets with less revenue, with previous cuts already in place, and in some cases, with the added challenge of shrinking enrollment. Yet for a few, the years of deep cuts and tight planning have brought some relief, but a continued uncertainty of what the future holds.

Athena-Weston School District

Athena-Weston School District Superintendent Jerry Copeland said planning for the 2011-12 school year has been the toughest of the last few years. Before the Athena-Weston School Board approved the district's $5.3 million budget for next year, the district eliminated its counselor position, cut art instruction at Weston Middle School and music instruction at Athena Elementary. A teaching position at the elementary was cut following a retirement, as was a full-time custodian position. All district staff also agreed to a salary and wage freeze for the coming year.

"We're hoping that will get us through the next couple of years," said Copeland, who is now also principal of Weston-McEwen High School in another cost-saving move. Weston Middle School Principal Lori Mills will oversee Athena Elementary, a position Copeland held previously along with being superintendent.

Those savings, combined with others, will save the district close to the $500,000 it anticipated being cut from the state.

Copeland said the stress of districts balancing their budgets doesn't end with the recent adoption for the upcoming school year. Districts will be in similar position in the second half of the biennium, or the 2012-13 school year.

"We have to be looking at making sure that we're being fiscally responsible enough the first year, to make it through the second year," he said.

Yet Copeland said his district has been fortunate. It has not had to cut instructional days, or seek furlough days. But there remains uncertainty on the state's funding, even in the current year.

The money is not there," Copeland said. "I think there's still challenges ahead. We're not out of this year."

He said the board would be reviewing the state's funding in February.

"That's a scary thing, but that's a reality," he said. "We gotta face the reality and adjust to it."

College Place Public Schools

Tim Payne, superintendent of College Place Public Schools, had to recommend layoffs and administrative changes to prepare for the 2011-12 school year. The district anticipated a more than $200,000 cut from the state, as well as close to $350,000 in lost funds from temporary or cut funds, like federal stimulus dollars.

Along with drops in enrollment over the past few years, the School board approved its $8.75 million budget with continued consolidation of responsibilities and positions.

District administrators absorbed a part of the cuts, with Payne taking on the duties of special education director. Special programs director Linda Byerley was named principal of Sager Middle School and will also see the district's bilingual, highly capable and Title I, II and III federal programs.

The dean of students position at Sager was cut, and former dean Lori Sutherland was made a full-time teacher, replacing an employee on a provisional contract.

Payne had recommended cutting a third-grade teaching position, and cutting a library technician position from Sager and Meadow Brook Intermediate. But after a series of public meetings with district staff, the board agreed to a plan that would save both positions.

Still, the board had to accept three layoffs among its classified employees, and position cuts affecting at least three certified staff.

Payne said state legislators are playing a dangerous game of politics in cutting funding to education. Like Copeland, Payne does not see a positive outlook in state funding for schools.

"Every revenue that comes out has been a decrease," he said. "Am I anticipating the same in December? You bet I am."

The politics, he said, were clearly demonstrated when Washington lawmakers enacted retroactive cuts to districts during the 2010-11 school year.

"The state for the first time ever demonstrated that they will cut us in the middle of a school year," he said.

Walla Walla Public Schools

Despite an estimated $530,000 in cuts from the state for the upcoming school year, Walla Walla Public Schools does not anticipate program cuts or layoffs as it finalizes its budget this month.

The somewhat positive outlook, however, does not mean Walla Walla schools have not taken a hit from state funding cuts in the last few years.

Deep cuts enacted in 2009 have helped the district avoid any other major cuts the last couple of years. But other factors have also helped Walla Walla weather the storm this time around.

One positive has been a steady growth in enrollment. Districts plan their budgets each year based on enrollment projections. When the actual enrollment is slightly higher, districts stand to receive additional funding, since money is allocated based on student enrollment. When the numbers are lower, the district must get by with less than planned.

District spokesman Mark Higgins said growth has been steady, but not overwhelming, the last few years. Too much growth, and the district would have felt the effects of crowding, and the need for additional facilities.

"We've grown more than 400 students in the last five years," Higgins said. "That's steady growth. It's not growth that is unmanageable."

What has also helped the district is a recommendation by former Superintendent Rich Carter to maintain an 8 percent reserve at the same time cuts to programs and positions were made in 2009. This was an increase from the 3-5 percent typically kept by the Walla Walla School Board. Anticipating further cuts from the state, the board agreed to keep a healthier reserve.

"That was the strategy," Higgins said. "The budget savings plan the last two years put us in that position."

Higgins said the district will continue to maintain an 8 percent reserve account this school year. Having funds in the reserve helped the district absorb the close to $500,000 lost in retroactive cuts this past school year.

"That's a significant cut," Higgins said. "You already have your budget built, and then you lose a half a million dollars."

And program cuts that were made in 2009, like losing the deans of students and three of six librarians, are still in place.

"We did a lot of internal shuffling the last three years in order to make up dollars, and be able to maintain jobs," Higgins said.

Higgins said about 30 district staff were relocated as positions were consolidated or cut, and people chose to leave or retire. The former deans and librarians, for example, were placed in other open positions within the district, further saving money.

"People were willing to do what was necessary to be flexible," Higgins said. "As a result, we're in a position that we are today, because of the cooperative nature of our district."

Columbia (Burbank) School District

Focusing on a reasonable ending fund balance, and doing a complete overview of district expenditures, has helped the Columbia School District avoid any further drastic cuts this year.

Superintendent Lou Gates said the district's funds were drastically low when he took over leadership three years ago. The district had a reserve balance of less than 1 percent, and some major cuts had to be implemented to get the district financially healthy.

"We made some pretty draconian cuts the first year that I was here," he said, with layoffs included. Gates also recommended the board establish a policy that the ending fund balance represent 5 percent of the budget.

The district then began analyzing its expenses and found ways to streamline costs in its transportation department, food services and other programs.

The board agreed to sell its old Wallula School property last year. It also invested $2.2 million to make energy-efficiency improvements, generating close to $800,000 in incentives, and guaranteeing savings in energy costs. Gates said the upgrades are projected to save the district $2 million over 20 years.

Still, some cuts were inevitable as the School Board prepared this year's budget. An inducement was offered to staff who gave early notice of resignation or retirement. Two teaching positions will not be filled, at a savings of about $120,000 when benefits as well as salaries are factored, Gates said.

Administrators agreed to a 3 percent salary cut, and district office staff took a 1.9 percent cut. And three para-professional employees, one working part time, were lost.

"It's been pretty tight in terms of how we budget," Gates said. "We know how much everybody makes down to the dollar."

Maria Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317.

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