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School district numbers cruncher ready to retire
Numerals are lifeless and sterile.
But for Terri Patton, the South Kitsap School District’s assistant superintendent for business and support, they are an opportunity to share a story.
Patton, an outdoor enthusiast, relishes the opportunity to give educators and community members an understanding of numbers through visuals. During the 2009-10 school year, the school district generated an estimated $870,000 in new revenue. As part of her nautical themed PowerPoint presentation, that was the “ship” carrying new revenue to SKSD. In another scenario, the “yacht” represented an estimated $1.4 million in cuts that were characterized as “very painful reductions.”
Those images will soon disappear from school board meetings. Patton, 60, said she will retire on June 30 after 11 years with SKSD. She said the state’s financial crisis did not factor into her decision to retire. Patton said that it is time to trade sketches of boats for RV rides throughout the United States and Canada with her husband, who has been retired since they moved to Port Orchard.
It will not be Patton’s first journey. The Kansas native moved with her husband to California and started work in the Tustin Unified School District in 1981.
“I always loved school,” Patton said. “The chance to work in public education was an opportunity to give back to the community and invest in something that was worthwhile.”
But Patton, who previously lived in Oregon, sought a return to the Northwest. That opportunity came in 1988 when she was hired by the Tukwila School District. In a smaller school district — Patton said Tukwila had fewer than 2,000 students at the time — she was an administrator to employees ranging from bus drivers to custodians.
She said the enormity of that position helped her move in 1990 to the Puyallup School District, where she started as a business manager who developed the budget and transitioned into the executive director of business, which she said is similar to her current role.
Budgets are developed around numbers, but Patton said math was not the focus of her college education beyond a few accounting courses. She was an English major before switching her focus toward behavioral sciences, which was also the emphasis of her graduate work.
“I’ve never really loved math at all, but it kind of makes sense to me,” she said. “It’s more solving the big-picture problem and communicating that’s more interesting and intriguing to me.”
That led up to one of her greatest challenges. Patton was hired in 2000 by SKSD shortly after its levy failure. That year, the district failed to pass a two-year levy measure in both February and April. That resulted in the district cutting 11.5 teaching and 19 maintenance and custodial positions in addition to cancelling all after-school activities at the junior high schools.
She began crafting a levy plan in September, when she was hired, and had to have it completed by December. After working many nights with her colleagues — often after midnight — the levy passed in February 2001 with 65 percent voter approval.
“It was pretty dismal here then,” Patton said. “I had the opportunity to experience successful levies for 10 years and kind of the rebuilding of the school district. Now it feels like what we’ve rebuilt, we’re having to tear down.”
She said when the latest budget is finalized, SKSD will have cut more than $20 million from its budget in recent years. SKSD officials have not determined whether they will need to notify the union by the May 15 deadline of any reductions in force. Unlike many of its neighboring districts, SKSD has been able to avoid that in recent years.
“I think what keeps me optimistic and positive is our focus is still on success for students,” Patton said. “We’ve done so many wonderful things apart from losing resources to improve student success. In spite of all of that, we’ve improved.”
SKSD superintendent Dave LaRose, who succeeded Bev Cheney in 2008, said Patton’s experience has been integral as the district has dealt with the challenges of the recession.
“Making the transition as a new superintendent in a time when the economy has been devastated — it’s been invaluable to have someone with Terri’s knowledge,” he said. “Terri’s real gift is not just her knowledge, but how she can communicate that.”
Patton said the most difficult aspect of retiring is leaving her colleagues behind. But she also will miss those PowerPoint presentations.
“What I found most rewarding in this job is being able to communicate financial information, which sometimes is challenging, in a way that people can understand,” she said. “I’ve found using metaphors and images to be really helpful.”
Patton said she adopted the Peninsula School District’s line-item approach — but hers is even more detailed — to document how SKSD allocates its funds. She believes that transparency has helped the district craft successful levies during the last decade, including the latest one that passed in 2009. She also credited business and community leaders in the area for the success.
“Levies are essential,” Patton said. “Without them, we would be bankrupt.”
Patton, who oversees business, facilities, food services, Internet technology and technology, soon will become a part of the “raft” identified in her budget presentations, which represents savings to the district. That is because LaRose and deputy superintendent Kurt Wagner plan to assume some of her duties and hire her successor at a lower pay rate.
Meanwhile, the only numbers Patton will analyze are the mile markers en route to her next adventure.