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Painful trade-offs

No teacher layoffs, but hours for classified staff severely cut

Gone is half the athletic program’s budget. Gone is the Primary Intervention Program for at-risk elementary school students. Gone is the food service program for every student. Gone are teachers' aides, secretarial jobs and custodians.

It was a grisly sight, watching a school district perform triage on itself, like watching one hand cut off the other.

But the patient — the island's public school system — remains alive. And thanks to the fast financial analysis from district officials and generous support from the community in pledging $400,000 in emergency funding — $270,000 is already raised — hope remains that programs cut a week ago will be reinstated by September.

At the May 12 special School Board meeting, Superintendent Michael Soltman made specific recommendations about what to cut to reach the $600,000 in targeted cuts the district has to make to remain solvent.

Saved:

— A full-time science and math teaching position at the high school was saved. Doing so cost the classified staff, secretaries, custodians and in-class teacher’s aides an unforeseen and additional $75,000 worth of job hours. The board was clear about replacing those hours with money as it becomes available.

Cut:

— The athletic program at the high school will be cut by $100,000, or about half. The likely result will be only one sport per gender per season. It has not been decided which sports will have to go.

— Food services are cut, saving $20,000. Left in place are services provided to students who qualify for the federally subsidized free and reduced lunch program.

— Staff time helping get struggling students into the right special education program has been cut. By getting students into the special education program, funds come into the district and the position more than pays for itself.

— A half-time special education teaching position has been cut.

— $32,000 worth of administrative services have been cut.

— The Primary Intervention Program at the elementary school has been cut. The program provides first-level support for at-risk students. District officials hope an outside agency will step in with support.

— $96,000 worth of secretarial, custodial and paraprofessional (teacher’s aides) hours have been cut.

“The PIP program isn’t the only program that’s facing cuts,” Soltman said. “One of the things we’ll probably have to give up is the paraprofessional program time for kindergarten kids. Fifteen kids get extra help for an hour a day and we’d like to ensure their staff time not get cut.”

Soltman said he’s also considering cutting custodial hours so that buildings get cleaned once every other day.

Also in jeopardy is early intervention and reading help for struggling readers, Soltman said. “These are classified staff hours, yes, but the cuts are affecting our core academic program.”

Fund-raising update
Ben Thomas, the district’s business manager, was impressed with the community’s actions thus far.

“First of all, to not be talking about a Reduction in Force (layoff of teachers), this community has got to be proud of itself for that. Four of my five years doing this, I’ve been part of RIFs every year but one, so you all should be very proud of yourselves. It’s incredible.”

Since the looming budget crisis was made public at the April 30 school board meeting, the San Juan Island Public Schools Foundation responded through its Save Our Schools initiative to raise money. Soltman worked closely with Charles Anderson at the San Juan Island Community Foundation to to secure up to $300,000 in the form of a “challenge grant,” matching community donations dollar for dollar.

The Community Foundation’s challenge grant was made up by an anonymous gift from the Fairway Fund, as well as donations from Charles Anderson and Pamela Gross, Scott Boden, David McCauley, Cloud Oakes, and Roger Salquist.

According to Public Schools Foundation board president Paul LeBaron, the May 8 SOS Call Night netted $55,000 in pledges and donations.

Over the weekend Valmark, which operates both the supermarkets on the island, donated $50,000 to help offset the cuts and return the district’s programs. “We feel the the schools are our community’s biggest asset, and we need good schools to keep our young families here,” Verne Howard said Monday.

Superintendent Michael Soltman expressed his gratitude for the generous donation and said the district has received $135,000 to date from various sources in the community.

That amount includes the $10,500 donation by Dr. Carolyn Haugen to fund the district’s portion of the K-12 Marine Science Program, which pairs local teachers and students with U.W. Friday Harbor Labs’ scientists. (A popular fundraiser for that program, “Jazz at the Labs” is scheduled for June 7).

“It’s a fantastic response from an amazing community,” Heidi Lopez said at the Public Schools Foundation Call Night. “We think we’re going to make it. I’m pretty proud of this community right now, and I’m happy I live here.”

Replacement priorities
The school board prioritized what parts of the school’s budget would be reinstated:

— First, reinstate the classified staff hours that were cut to fund the math/science position at the high school.

— Second, special education assessment hours ($17,500), the Primary Intervention Program ($23,578) and $50,000 for athletics.

— Third, 19 hours per day of custodial, secretarial and paraprofessional hours, worth $95,000.

— Fourth, $32,000 in administrative services, $20,000 for the food service program, $38,000 for the part-time Special Education teacher, and the remaining $50,000 in athletic program funding.

Questions about public perceptions
Throughout this process, district officials — School Board President Boyd Pratt speaking for the others — have been clear about their desire to make the core values of the school system reflected in their budget choices.

The values question aside, district officials are well aware that cutting certain programs that are popular with the public, i.e. a science teacher, or the athletic program, means it would be easier to raise funds toward their reinstatement. But the board faced a predicament regarding perception surrounding cutting popular programs that would be easiest to replace.

The issue was deciding to cut or save the high school math science position or a dollar-equivalent amount of support staff hours.

“This fundraising is now part of what the district will have to do from now on,” said Wendy Wood, San Juan Island Community Foundation liaison to the school board. Wood addressed the importance of thinking strategically, and pointed out that finding community support will be easier if there is a tangible teaching position to save.

“That’s what they call in fundraising a 'sexy sell' – to try and raise money to save that science position,” she said. “ I think it’s harder when admin’s been cut, and it’s looking amorphous.”

“There is no ‘fluff’ here,” board member Heidi Lopez said. “We need to be really clear to the community that the classified hours we’re cutting to keep this teaching position are not ‘extra.’ They’re incredibly important. Everything the secretaries and teachers’ aides and custodians do will now have to be picked up by teachers.”

By the end of the evening, the board decided to keep to its stated core values and keep the teaching position and cut classified staff hours. Instead, board members would find ways to communicate to the public the importance of support services provided by custodians, secretaries and teachers’ aides, and hope those positions are “sexy” enough to generate donations.

Soltman was optimistic but guarded about the future and singled out the PIP program as very important. “We now need to raise the remaining $165,000 in matching funds in order to access the remaining $330,000,” he said.

To donate to the Save Our Schools campaign, visit the San Juan Island Public Schools Foundation’s Web site, www.sjpsf.org.

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