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Update: School district meeting on restructuring postponed to March 4; shortfall may be less than $826,000

The San Juan Island School Board meeting scheduled for Wednesday

has been rescheduled for March 4, 6 p.m.

The School Board was scheduled to act upon financial planning recommendations at the Wednesday night meeting. However, the board will delay the meeting to honor faculty and staff requests for more time to understand the recommendations and the underlying financial projections.

Further, new analysis of revenue projections indicate that anticipated revenue declines will be somewhat less than the $826,000 predicted for 2009-10, Superintendent Michael Soltman reported today.

"Consequently, further review of the analysis and program options will be considered," he wrote in an e-mail.

Soltman and Board Chairman Boyd Pratt issued a joint statement, saying, “Program restructuring decisions of this magnitude must be clearly understood and supported as much as possible by those who will be responsible for implementation. It is important that we all have a common understanding of the financial analysis as well as the program choices available. We believe that some additional time dedicated to this process will ensure well considered decisions that engender greater support.”

This month, district administrators and board members will continue to meet with the Financial Task Force and faculty and staff representatives to develop deeper understanding of the financial projections and available program options.

The school board had been planning for a $1 million reduction in expenses for the 2009-11 school years due to declines in enrollment and state funding, as well as the poor economic climate.

“The revenue shortage is due to three primary factors: chronic underfunding of state basic education, our pattern of declining enrollment, and the necessity of living within our means and not being dependent upon $550,000 in annual fund-raising in a deteriorating economy,” Soltman wrote in an e-mail Jan. 30.

The board last discussed restructuring Jan. 28 at Friday Harbor Middle School. About 60 concerned parents, teachers and local islanders attended the meeting.

Restructuring scenarios include:

— Relocate sixth grade to Friday Harbor Elementary School.

— Restructure classrooms at the elementary school, with classes of grades 1-2, 3-4, and 5-6.

— Replace the Friday Harbor Middle School principal with a part-time dean of students under the supervision of the high school principal. That and the aforementioned steps would save about $75,000, according to the district.

— Reduce the athletic director's position; eliminate the maintenance and operations director's position; reduce business, transportation and technology services, and move Griffin Bay School to the district office, for a possible savings of $412,000. District offices would move to the sixth-grade wing at the middle school.

— Reduce teaching and library positions – 1.5 FTE in grades K-6, 1.5 FTE in grades 7-12, 1.3 FTE in the library — for a savings of $275,000.

— Reduce the athletic program budget $108,000.

- Reduce the special education budget $92,000.

— Reduce the guidance and extended learning experience budget $40,500.

San Juan Island School District has five administrators, 49 classified employees and 62 teachers. Friday Harbor Elementary School has 16 full-time and three part-time teachers. Friday Harbor Middle School has eight full-time and three part-time teachers. Friday Harbor High School has 11 full-time and seven part-time teachers.

No funding possible for sports, co-curricular programs
The proposed scenarios include no funding for athletics and co-curricular programs. A part-time athletic director would remain. There are 14 sports programs offered at the district, including baseball, basketball, cheerleading, football, golf, soccer, softball, tennis, track, volleyball and wrestling.

The sports budget varies from $220,000-260,000, a majority of which is covered by the district. Outside revenue sources help fund the athletic programs.

Soltman, Pratt and board member David McCauley said reducing administrative costs at the middle school and offering split classes at the elementary school will provide essential cost savings to the district.

Elementary school Principal Gary Pflueger is in favor of moving sixth grade to the elementary school. School Board member Sally Bryan is opposed.

A retired teacher of 25 years, Bryan said small class sizes are needed at the elementary school level. Bryan is concerned about the overall impact of cost reductions to elementary school students. The fundamental blocks of learning are established in the early years, she said.

Bryan would like the overall cost-cutting parameters to include the high school and believes there is an unequal amount of burden placed on the elementary and middle schools.

School Board member Todd Roberts requested clarity on cost benefits of the structural change. He requested a written breakdown of people, programs and costs before a final decision is made on structural changes.

Soltman said moving sixth grade to the elementary school allows flexibility in creating split classrooms while still maintaining reasonable class sizes and assigning teaching positions. “Without such flexibility at the elementary level, more significant reductions must be made at the middle school and high school level.”

“It is more critical than ever that we structure ourselves in a way that allows us to be responsive to any additional reductions required by the state, and to respond in ways that preserve greater learning opportunities for students,” Soltman wrote.

In a previous school board meeting, Dr. Jerry Jenkins, superintendent of the Northwest Educational Service District in Anacortes, said budgetary challenges include maintaining fund balances that reflect fiscal responsibility, and identifying long-term liability risks related to fiscal management and staffing levels.

Fiscal responsibility involves maintaining a safe level of reserves to protect unexpected future costs.

“There will always be unexpected challenges, such as enrollment not hitting projections or a boiler needing to be replaced," Jenkins said in a phone interview. "The district needs to maintain a reserve large enough to allow for normal cash flow cycles and these unexpected challenges.”

Jenkins advised the district to recognize liability risks when reducing high-risk services such as special education and fiscal management. If services are reduced, Jenkins advised a transition to take place over a period of years. Each student's individual educational plan must be met and maintained as required by state and federal law.

During the 2009-11 school years, the district is considering a reduction of $92,000 in special education programs. However, according to Soltman, those reductions may not be achievable because of federal requirements and mandates.

Jenkins emphasized distinguishing required programs from those which are non-essential to educating students. For example, programs required by law must remain; however, program enhancements are not required, include sports, electives, AP courses, sixth period, and a large teaching staff to reduce class sizes.

A purchase of a new school bus is currently in progress. A new bus is needed to stay current with the district's bus purchase cycle and to maintain eligibility for the state's depreciation reimbursements. The bus purchase was approved by the board in October.

Dr. Mark Fishaut, a medical doctor who coaches high school girls soccer, said we are experiencing the worst economic times ever and encouraged everyone to the accept the consequences of the school budget cuts.

“There is going to be pain. Don't deny it, accept it. We must attempt to distinguish our needs and wants and approach them realistically.”

Parent Deborah Nolan encouraged everyone to move in a positive direction despite the budget challenges. “Look at what we have to work with and make it the best it can be,” she said.

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