School district makes painful trade-offs to fix budget
By JAMES KRALL
Journal of the San Juans Reporter
May 15, 2008 · Updated 1:33 PM
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 another.
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 — more than $160,000 is in hand — hope remains that programs cut Monday night will be reinstated by September.
At 6:30 p.m. Monday, 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. By 8:30 p.m., the hard part of the surgery was done but the patient looked a lot different than at the start of the evening.
In all likelihood, more outside funds will be raised in the coming weeks and the board made a four-category list of what would be reinstated as more money becomes available.
– A full-time science and math teaching position at the high school was saved from the axe. Doing so cost the classified staff, secretaries, custodians and in-class teacher's aides an additional $75,000 worth of job hours. It isn't certain how many jobs that means, but replacing that money takes the very top priority.
– The athletic program at the high school will be cut by $100,000, or about half. According to Soltman, this means there will be only one sport per gender per season. It has not been decided which sports will have to go.
– Food services were 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 those students into the special education program, funds come into the district from the state 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, equating to a decrease of 19 hours per day. It's unclear which jobs at which schools will go.
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. Matched by the Community Foundation's challenge grant, and with other donations coming in each day, the total amount of cash in hand is $161,720.
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.
"It's a fantastic response from an amazing community," said Heidi Lopez at the 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."
LeBaron said Wednesday he's in the process of asking for an additional $200,000 in donations from a second set of donors. He expects the SOS totals to change dramatically in the coming days, since those donations will also be matched dollar for dollar.
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 – 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 were well aware Monday night 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 towards 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 postion 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 Monday night's meeting, the board decided to keep to its stated core values and keep the teaching position. 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.
The three principals are working closely with Soltman to implement the priorities of the board. In the coming weeks, names will be placed with staff jobs that are slated to be curtailed or cut altogether.
The Public Schools Foundation will continue to raise funds from community members to offset the budget cuts. To donate to the Save Our Schools campaign, visit the San Juan Island Public Schools Foundation's Web site, www.sjpsf.org.Contact Journal of the San Juans Reporter James Krall at email@example.com or 360-378-5696.