School district sharpening its budget ax

POULSBO — Teachers may be safe from this year’s round of school district budget cuts, but other staff members could see their hours slashed.

Two budget review groups recommended reducing library and counseling staff at elementary schools this week. That idea was met with opposition from staff members and representatives of the North Kitsap Education Association.

“We need full-time librarians, counselors and specialists at the elementary level. Please, do not put them on the chopping block,” said Christine Fraser, a math teacher at Poulsbo Middle School and president-elect of the education association.

Fraser added that elementary counselors help reduce cases of bullying at the middle and high school levels. Patrick Pearson, current president of the education association, said librarians are an integral part of the district’s Professional Learning Community teaching model, in which students often spend tutorial time in the library.

“We never, ever have thought that our librarians or counselors are ineffective,” Pearson said. “They are such a vital part of the school environment now.”

District administrators are wrestling with ideas for solving a $700,000 shortfall in the 2010-11 budget. The district wants to reduce its spending so it can hire enough teachers to replace staff members who are leaving. The district is losing the equivalent of 16.6 full time teachers at the end of the school year, due to retirements and leaves of absence.

“The more cuts we make in the areas we were talking about tonight, the more ability we have to bring back those positions,” District Superintendent Rick Jones said Monday.

Jones presented ideas from the district’s Budget Advisory Team and the Citizens Budget Review Committee at two public meetings Monday and Tuesday. The lists of budget reduction ideas compiled by the two groups generated questions and concern from staff and community members.

One such idea was the citizens committee’s suggestion to cut salaries across the district by 1.2 to 1.3 percent. Such a cut would solve the budget problem, but is unpopular among staff.

“We’re going to have higher class sizes, we’re going to have more papers to grade. To think that we’re going to have to take a pay cut after all of these things, I don’t think it’s a recommendation that should happen,” Pearson said.

Jones also presented the idea of increasing the amount of money collected by next year’s school levy, through a “levy lid lift.” The current school levy was renewed in a special election in February. The district expects the levy to generate about $13.2 million during the next school year. By increasing the tax rate, the district could raise an additional $2.4 million over the next two school years. Jones and levy committee co-chairs Clint Boxman and Jerry Parrish feared such a maneuver would damage the public’s trust, because the district promised a specific tax rate while campaigning for the levy renewal, and a lid lift would increase that rate.

“The three of us said, ‘No, we don’t like that idea,’” Boxman said of the tax increase. “What we felt this whole levy lid lift would do is put a black eye on us as a district.”

Former school board president Catherine Ahl reminded Boxman that the district also promised to use levy dollars to provide certain services, and if it cannot provide those because of a lack of funds, it must explain that to the public.

“If (services) need to be cut, you need to get out to the people and explain why the things they voted on are going to be cut,” Ahl said.

The groups also presented ideas for revenue generation. Community members at Tuesday’s meeting suggested increasing athletic fees for middle and high school sports. The citizens committee said that expanding free, all-day kindergarten could attract higher district enrollment and thereby, revenue. But administrators suggested cutting the program from where it is currently offered, at Pearson and Wolfle elementary schools, to reduce the operating costs.

Most of the commitees’ budget suggestions, however, centered on cuts. That trend will likely continue.

“The projection is that these next two years are going to be more challenging than the budget we’re currently living with,” Jones said.

The two committees will present their final budget recommendations to the school board in June. The board will adopt a 2010-11 school year budget in August.

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