By Margie Doyle
The Orcas Island School District (OISD) Board faced a tight budget for 2012-13 with little – no – wriggle room at its regular meeting last Thursday evening. At the meeting’s end, they had decided to terminate the position of Facilities Manager, held for the last two years by David Johnson, close the school library, de-fund athletics and to accept a draft budget that reduces classes and programs, and maintains the cuts of 4.76 FTE (full-time equivalent) teachers.
The 2012-13 budget originally called for a reduction of over 16 FTE teachers, and the new budget (with 2.6 FTE teachers either retired or on a leave of absence) returns 9.22 FTE to the 2012-13 public educational program.
The board considered reductions in classified (non-teacher) positions, and discussed priorities, should funding become available to return more teachers or staff to the schools. During public comment periods, members of the public strongly urged the board to consider re-instating hours for music education, and funding for athletics and the library.(See comments by Catherine Pederson at the end of this article).
And at the end of the day, the district’s reserve fund will most likely hover at around $100,000, far below the target set by the Board in 2007, when the fund was at less than $7,000.
Board member Chris Sutton commented that the proposed budget “has gotten us pretty close to zero instead of $400,000 in the hole: with reduced music, no library, no athletics, general across-the-board cuts.”
Board President Tony Ghazel questioned the accounting, pointing out increased costs and the decline in revenues.
Superintendent Barbara Kline said the budget before the board was “a very cautious budget – [provision for] sick days and utilities are high, which they weren’t this past year. In that sense, it’s a cautious budget.”
The budget accepted as a starting point by the board on June 28 was built, “with the priority to serve 600 students,” she said.
Business Manager Keith Whitaker said the goal of the budget submitted to the board on June 28 was “to get close to zero [balance] … and submit the budget to the ESD [Educational Services District] for next year… the ultimate goal being that the reductions are enough to get us to balance.
“Some anticipated revenues, which are not guaranteed, are not in the budget, even though I suspect some of them will be,” Whitaker said. The district is waiting to hear if two significant grant applications will be awarded.
And the all-important enrollment figures will not be known until school starts again in September. At that point, teachers may be hired back on an as-needed basis; however, their contracts won’t be finalized until the monthly board meeting.
Kline asked the board to identify their priorities as to what should be brought back into the school programs, should enrollment guarantee increased revenue.
OISD Board Chair Tony Ghazel said, “I want to bring as many staff back as possible but be in a position to pay without dipping into our fund balance… is it that we’re over-staffed or not?”
Kline said that staffing plans still call for the reduction of 4.76 FTE; she added that actually 6.76 FTE are gone from the system, with two retirees and a leave of absence.
Whitaker explained the budget’s accounting: “When you consider itemized costs vs. draft budget details, the itemized list is from every area of classified employment that you can reduce.” He pointed out that cafeteria and transportation funding couldn’t be reduced.
“I would say we reduced more than we should; these are unprecedented reductions in non-staff budgets. The reality is there is nothing extra to reduce, we’re talking about what do you change to do the least damage?”
Board Member Scott Lancaster noted that the all-day kindergarten has been funded for the past two years; the termination of that grant makes “a minimum $150,000 difference in the fund balance there.” (The district’s budget calls for one all-day kindergarten class next year.)
Board member Janet Brownell asked, “If more kids come back, will we be staffing teachers or bringing back non-certificated elements, and in what order. Or do we make staffing the priority?
“We as a board have to make cuts. What do we see as priorities?” She advocated adding back in .5 maintenance and coaches for winter and spring sports, adding, “But I know that’s huge.”
The OASIS (Orcas Alternative Student-Initiated Studies) programs again came under scrutiny, given the uncertainty of state legislative support for alternative learning programs. Sutton expressed concern at cutting OASIS staff and then bringing them back when OASIS students increased. “I’m not sure adding to OASIS enrollment is sustainable.”
Brownell, while supporting the educational value of OASIS, said her concern was with “the political perception of ALE to the state. “If [legislators] makes significant changes, these cuts will look like nothing. We need a firewall to protect the district from state changes; so we’re not dependent on OASIS.”
Elementary/Middle School Principal Kyle Freeman said, “I share these concerns and have talked with Keith [Whitaker] a lot to protect us. OASIS has staffed pretty close to the max continuously, even with the expectation in growth last year. It’s pretty efficient.”
Whitaker brought up the complications to staff funding created by state budget allocations, staff mix ratios and the fact that the district is self-insured for unemployment: “If teachers are out of work, we pay for unemployment. Over the years [the district] has saved hundred of thousands in not being privately insured.”
But now, Whitaker says, “We have more budgeted for unemployment [compensation] than [it would cost] to pay to bring people back. But those funds are in staff contracts.”
Ghazel suggested the school district meet with the Orcas Park and Rec District to work out the school’s involvement with athletics. He mentioned San Juan Island School District’s decision to cut athletics from its budget. A subcommittee of Ghazel and Chris Sutton was formed to explore options with the Park and Rec District.
Ghazel summed up the board discussion saying that the sense of the board was to reinstate music, athletics and maintenance, in that order to the budget submitted to them, before sending it on to the ESD in Anacortes, where it is due by July 31.
Another discouraging note at the June 28 meeting was the delay of the high school building re-siding project. Superintendent Barbara Kline said that only one bid had come in by the June 25 deadline, and “It came in quite high. I recommend go out for bid again… I’m not comfortable with spending public money in this manner.”
The new deadline is July 16, with a planned start date of August 1. The board determined that there is mitigation for construction during the school year in the bid.
But there was frosting for the bitter pills the board digested, in the form of community grants:
- $500 for applied physics from Keith Whitaker
- $536 for 4th grade books from the Henigson Family Donor Advised Fund
- $12,000 for the Elementary School’s Primary Intervention Program from Orcas Island Community Foundation
- $28,734 for the Elementary Marine Science programs from the Orcas Island Community Foundation.
Comments regarding the Orcas Island School District Music Program by Catherine Pederson:
Pederson cited research that “Music training does more than entertain; it changes brains; impacts speech language memory and attention; enhances the ability to adapt and change; and increases vocabulary and better reading ability.”
Sympathizing with the task before the board, Pederson continued, “How is it, that faced with irrefutable evidence, we may be considering cutting back? You must know that interfering with present music program would be disastrous. We’ve come a long way in six years in offering benefits, [the music program] needs to be continued in at least its present form.
“We need to keep faith with our students, teachers and these [community] believers by maintaining the music program at the present level and working toward growth.”