NKSD budget: Cutting into the bone

POULSBO — North Kitsap School District is struggling to shrink its 2010-11 budget without damaging its students’ ability to learn and succeed.

District administrators met with members of the Citizens Budget Review Committee Tuesday to discuss what the district can and cannot afford to cut next year. While an official budget will not be finalized until later this spring, several programs and salaries are in danger of being trimmed or eliminated. Such cuts have been the norm for school districts throughout the state for the past several years.

“Four years ago, we were into fat. Two years ago we were into muscle. Now we’re into bone,” committee member Mark Warns said of the cuts.

Among the money-saving ideas presented Tuesday was the idea of cutting salaries for employees throughout the district by as much as 1.3 percent.

“It is not on the top of the list,” committee chair Colette Wilson said of the salary cuts. “Whether that becomes a reality depends on the other cuts that are identified. If it were applied the way it was presented, it would be applied evenly across the district.

“Is it something that is likely to happen?” Wilson continued. “No. There are other ways of approaching (budget cuts) that are more immediate, with less negative impact.”

Ahead of salary reductions on the district’s list of possible cuts is the idea of reducing the number of teachers in the district. The state Legislature last month reduced education funding specifically for fourth-grade teachers for the 2010-11 school year. The committee and district administrators said if teaching positions are cut, those cuts will be spread over multiple grade levels, not just the fourth-grade level. But the district hopes making small cuts in other areas — possibly among maintenance hours, assistant principal hours and counseling hours, as well as others — will reduce the need to slash teachers’ hours or jobs.

“We’re trying to find something out of here to mitigate the loss of classroom teachers,” Chris Willits said of the district’s list of possible budget cuts.

More than 15 full-time equivalent teaching positions throughout the district are scheduled to end in June due to retirements and leaves of absence. Administrators believe this will reduce the need for more layoffs.

“What our attrition is going to do is hopefully keep us from having to (lay off) additional people,” Willits said.

Another money-saving idea is to close one of the district’s seven elementary schools.

“The potential for savings exists by reducing non-teaching staff by combining the students at other schools,” Wilson said.

The district would not be able to act on that idea until the 2011-12 school year, but it remains on the table as a way of saving money in the future.

Some programs are safe from cuts for the time being. The North Kitsap Community Pool has substantially reduced its cost to the district over the past two years, thanks to the efforts of pool managers and the Community Pool Advisory Committee.

“We need to leave that alone for now,” budget committee member David Bigelow said of the pool. “It’s a success story, and it bodes well because of the example it sets for the rest of the district.”

Some noted that the district should look at ways of making money in addition to its money-saving ideas. One such idea is to offer free, all-day kindergarten throughout the district.

“We need to do this to be competitive with other districts,” committee member Richard Osborn said.

Several local students have opted to attend free, all-day kindergarten in the Central Kitsap School District because the program is not widely offered at North Kitsap schools. The district has combatted that trend by offering the program at Pearson Elementary School, which borders the Central Kitsap district. The program is also offered at Wolfle Elementary in Kingston, but not at the other five elementary schools in the district. Superintendent Rick Jones said adding the program at the other schools would cost roughly $200,000 a year.

Committee member Ron Turley sees free, all-day kindergarten as an equity issue within the district itself.

“I don’t like the notion that some people are getting benefits that others in the district aren’t,” Turley said.

However the budget process shakes out this year, the pain will be felt throughout the district.

“It’s going to hurt, whatever we do,” Osborn said.

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