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South Kitsap School District still faces uncertain budget issues

Mixed.

That might be the most accurate way to describe the feelings of South Kitsap School District superintendent Dave LaRose and financial operations officer Sandy Rotella regarding a variety of budget issues.

It starts at the state level. Both LaRose and Rotella said they do not anticipate another mid-school year rescission. Last December, the state House and Senate passed legislation expected to close most of Washington’s $1.1 billion budget 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.

Now-retired SKSD assistant superintendent for business and support Terri Patton said that was particularly difficult because the school district already had allocated those funds to hire teachers. Because of union contracts, she said the district simply could not lay off those employees. Patton estimated at the time that it cost SKSD $795,000 in 2010-11 and $950,000 for this school year.

While SKSD officials are not concerned about facing another mid-year recission, state officials still must grapple with a $2 billion budget shortfall.

In November, Gregoire outlined 160 proposed budget cuts, including trimming the school year by four days and reducing levy equalization funding for property-poor districts, such as SKSD. The latter is significant, as Rotella said SKSD has $2 million in those funds budgeted for 2012-13.

“I can’t think of a more unfair systemic decision they could be considering,” LaRose said. “It’s literally impacting those who need it the most.”

Gregoire then immediately responded to her outline with a proposal asking voters for the first state sales-tax increase in 28 years. She wants the Legislature to put a referendum on the March ballot that seeks a temporary half-cent increase in the sales tax, which would generate nearly $500 million in annual revenue.

LaRose does not support that proposal.

“People maybe don’t want taxation,” he said in November. “That type of strategy is ill-advised. It’s a let’s-hold-them-hostage strategy. Maybe it’s a good campaign strategy around the emotion, but who is suffering? It’s the kids once again.”

But LaRose said SKSD has made about $20 million in cuts the last five years, which leaves little in the way of further reductions.

“We don’t want to do anything to impact the inner ring, but we’re getting closer and closer,” he said.

To avoid laying off teachers last year, the district made administrative reductions. Two directors, Lori McStay (human resources) and Aimee Warthen (community relations), were laid off, and some of their duties were assumed by LaRose and other administrators. In addition to those positions, Rotella assumed fewer responsibilities and salary when she replaced Patton.

But even with those reductions, SKSD director of business services Marcia Wentzel said in August that the district eliminated 23.5 full-time equivalent (FTE) teaching positions, which saved nearly $1.7 million.

Depending on the amount of reductions from the state, more attrition from the teaching ranks could be a possibility.

“I don’t want any of our staff to worry about what our priorities might be,” said LaRose, noting that he and other SKSD officials regularly have met with several legislators. “Our priorities will be kids and the people we serve.”

Another budget-reduction method could involve school closures, and while LaRose did not dismiss that possibility, he said that process usually takes more than a year, and any decision he is involved with must analyze the long-term effects on students, teachers and budgets rather than a quick fix.

The Central Kitsap School District closed Seabeck and Tracyton elementary schools in 2007. Givens Elementary School, which now is a community center, was the last South Kitsap school closed, in 1990. But that corresponded with the addition of three new elementary schools — Hidden Creek, Mullenix Ridge and Sidney Glen — that opened the same year.

LaRose said the savings when a district “mothballs” a school usually only amount to about $200,000 per year, because it still must maintain a building.

Rotella said her former employer, the Westminster School District in Colorado, closed seven buildings several years ago because of a capital project to develop new schools. But she said one of those buildings later had to be condemned when a mold problem developed without regular oversight.

As SKSD officials look for ways to avoid those sorts of cuts, Rotella had some positive information to share during her budget presentation earlier this month. She said the district collected about $350,000 more than anticipated from local property taxes and federal impact aid, which goes to school districts that have lost property tax revenue due to the presence of tax-exempt federal property.

SKSD also had 150 more students enrolled for 2011-12 than anticipated. After hiring 6.23 FTE teachers to fulfill contracts requiring class sizes to be maintained at certain levels, the enrollment increase resulted in more than $294,000 in additional revenue for the district.

“While this is a positive story, we’re still seeing a decline at the elementary school level,” said Rotella, adding that means the district’s enrollment likely will continue to decrease.

One area where the district might be able to generate more revenue in the future is through its maintenance and operations levy. LaRose said the district will begin its campaign for a new one in February — a year before the current one expires.

The district’s last four-year levy passed in 2009 with 57.6 percent of the vote. Taxpayers’ contributions increased from $1.90 to $2.27 per $1,000 assessed valuation through the end of the last school year before it increased by one cent.

It is likely to increase again, but the amount has not been determined.

“From when we ran that campaign to now — it’s a whole new world,” LaRose said.

 

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