School district braces for more layoffs

Reduction-in-force notices already have started with some managers in the South Kitsap School District.

That appears to be just the beginning.

Two SKSD directors, Lori McStay (human resources) and Aimee Warthen (community relations), have been notified that their positions will be terminated June 30.

“That work won’t go away,” SKSD assistant superintendent for business and support Terri Patton said. “The people who are left will just have to work quite a bit harder.”

Based on a public records search of their salaries from the 2009-10 and the district’s estimated $15,000 savings from Patton’s upcoming retirement — her vacancy will be reclassified as chief financial and operations officer — SKSD should save at least $205,000 with those departures.

In addition, superintendent Dave LaRose, deputy superintendent Kurt Wager and assistant superintendent Greg Roberts will take four furlough days during the 2011-12 school year.

But that does little to close a deficit that Patton estimates at $6.5 million.

SKSD has until May 15 to inform the teachers union of any reductions in force. Given the district’s administration cuts, Patton did not discount the possibility of that happening.

“I sure they are — and they should be,” she said, when asked if young teachers should feel nervous about their job security. “We are preparing a reduced education plan that includes staff reductions in force or employee layoffs.”

During a March 2 meeting, SKSD board president Kathryn Simpson expressed concern that the Legislature might adjourn at the end of April without finishing its budget. She said if that occurs, South Kitsap and other districts will not know what level of funding, such as levy equalizations, it will receive from the state.

Because of that possibility, LaRose said district officials will draft a “worst-case scenario” budget.

Patton said SKSD’s reduced-education plan, which lists all of the positions that will be eliminated, will be presented at the April 20 board meeting at the district office.

Anatomy of a Deficit

The deficit is the result of a combination of factors.

In December, the state House and Senate passed legislation expected to close most of Washington’s $1.1-billion shortfall. Those cuts — combined with previous ones by Gov. Christine Gregoire — were expected to reduce the deficit by around $700 million.

That encompassed a $50 million reduction from public schools, which included the elimination of funding to keep class sizes smaller in kindergarten through fourth grade.

Patton said that particularly was difficult because SKSD already allocated those funds to hire teachers. Because of union contracts, she said the district simply could not layoff those employees. Patton estimates that cost SKSD $795,000 this year and $950,000 for 2011-12.

The district also faces a substantial reduction in levy equalization funding, which has been used in the state to create a balance between property-poor districts with their more affluent peers.

But not all of its funding issues are external. Patton and her staff estimate enrollment for the following school year and SKSD uses those numbers to hire a specific number of teachers. The result was 134 full-time equivalent students enrolled fewer than projected, which Patton said cost the district $800,000.

“Historically, this area has not followed either the state or national (birth) trend,” she said. “It’s kind of sporadic and very difficult to predict.”

Regardless, Patton said SKSD officials will have to be “more cautious” with future enrollment projections.

Other internal issues outlined by Patton include increasing fuel and insurance expenses.

She said the district’s budget issues could be exacerbated by cuts for funding to Title I schools, which are classified as having at least 40 percent of its student body comprised of poor students, and special education.

“It could be worse,” Patton said. “I’m not 100 percent convinced that our target of $6.5 million will be completely accurate. We want to be ready to react.”

One challenge is that SKSD already has undergone $18.3 million in cuts over the last five years. Those have ranged from energy conservation, such as lowering the temperature in gyms, to not filling several administrative and janitorial openings.

Patton said district officials have approached the various unions SKSD works with about concessions in contracts to help reduce its deficit.

The district has been able to close a combined $12.6 million deficit the last two years without teacher layoffs. But even with union concessions, that might not be feasible this year as SKSD’s enrollment projections for 2011-12 means that it has 19 teachers more than required, Patton said.

She said this is the first time the district has used non-attrition based staff reductions since the 2000 levy failure. While administrators will have to pick up some of the duties vacated by McStay and Warthen, LaRose said their departures are much different than those in the past.

“The creative things we’ve done — this is efficiency; this is a reorganization — we’re not even going to pretend that’s the situation we’re in right now,” he said. “We’re cutting people and positions to save money. To be able to say we’ll continue to be able to do as well as we’ve done with those people in that role, that is not true. We’re not even going to begin to say we’re going to be able to do that.”

Deeper Cuts on the Horizon?

LaRose and Patton both said they want to avoid cuts to arts and athletics, citing numerous studies that indicate children who participate in extra-curricular activities typically perform better in school. Patton said she is hopeful SKSD can avoid cuts in those areas.

“We’re getting closer and closer to that what we call that inner ring,” she said. “That makes us nervous. We don’t want to impact kids if we can avoid it.”

Instead of layoffs, some have suggested that SKSD use some of its reserve fund, which is more than $4 million, to close its deficit. But Patton said that is not feasible for a variety of reasons. Washington’s chief economist Arun Raha recently said he does not expect the state’s budget situation to improve significantly in the next couple of years, which could mean further cuts to education.

Also, Patton said SKSD receives varying amounts of money from the state and levy collections throughout the year. She said that sometimes is less than the $6 million per month designated for payroll, which means the district must temporarily take that money out of its reserve fund.

One prospect that will not appear on the agenda this year is school closures. LaRose said that process usually takes more than a year and entails community involvement and discussions with other local districts who have closed schools. He did not discount it being a possibility if the district has more budget woes in ensuing years, though.

The Central Kitsap School District closed Seabeck and Tracyton elementary schools in 2007. Tacoma Public Schools explored shutting down Henry Foss High School after this school year, but will instead look at closing a few elementary schools. Givens Elementary School, which now is a community center, was the last South Kitsap school closed, in 1990.

SKSD’s board of directors will host “Community Conversation” from 5:30 to 8 p.m. April 20 at South Kitsap High School. The event, which is open to the public, will highlight the budget in addition to the district’s “Whole Child” philosophy. LaRose said the aim of that concept is to make each student feel safe, healthy, cared for and supported, engaged and connected, and challenged.

In addition to presentations, LaRose said there will be a question-and-answer segment.

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