South Sound school superintendents are paying close attention to the state Legislature in anticipation of yet another round of budget cuts - cuts that likely will lead to fewer teachers, bigger classes, higher fees for athletic programs and school lunches, and the reduction or elimination of entire programs.
While that’s a bleak picture, the fact of the matter is, administrators in the Olympia, Tumwater and North Thurston school districts have done such a good job of managing their budgets that the forthcoming cuts are not likely to be as severe or as painful as they could have been.
Local superintendents, with direction from their school boards, are likely to dip into cash reserves and rely on attrition to cover most of the needed reductions in staff. Through previous budget reductions and with the belief that the economy is not going to rebound anytime soon, the superintendents have demonstrated a great deal of fiscal restraint. Their thoughtful stewardship will pay dividends when lawmakers finally adopt a two-year budget for state and K-12 operations.
The Olympian’s editorial board recently met with Olympia Superintendent Bill Lahmann, Tumwater’s new superintendent, Mike Kirby, North Thurston’s top administrator, Raj Manhas, and their chief financial officers. We came away from that session almost relieved about what lies ahead, given the dire state budget situation.
While some school districts elsewhere are talking about closing schools and cutting the school year, Olympia, North Thurston and Tumwater are considering far less draconian measures.
Olympia, for example, is facing at least one more year of shrinking enrollment. Lahmann says the district will be able to serve the students — just under 9,000 of them — with a budget under $90 million.
Based on Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed spending plan, Olympia plans to cut $1.9 million in the 2011-12 school year. That’s on top of $6 million in budget cuts over the last five or six years, Lahmann said.
Olympia knows that more than 20 teachers won’t be returning to the classroom next year because of retirements and for other reasons and that should cover the number of staff reductions that will be necessary to balance the budget. Olympia likely will draw down its ending fund balance, make cuts in administration and transportation, turn to higher fees for students who participate in athletic programs and restructure (if not eliminate) the gifted education program. Gifted education funding is largely set at the state rather than local level.
Lahmann said Olympia is not planning any teacher layoffs, known formally as a reduction in force. Neither is Tumwater, according to Kirby.
Tumwater will have to cut $1.7 million from its $60 million operating budget next year. That comes on top of about $3 million in cuts over the last three years.
Kirby said he and school board members are considering raising lunch fees, reducing staff positions and using a half million dollars from the ending fund account to balance the budget and still serve 6,000 students next year.
North Thurston, with 14,000 students, is the largest school district in Thurston County. And unlike Olympia, which is shrinking in student population, North Thurston grew by 400 students this year. Forty percent of the students are on free and reduced-price lunch programs and 40 percent are minorities, according to Manhas. He said having large elementary schools helps keep administrative costs down.
North Thurston has cut $7 million from its budget in the last three or four years and is looking at an expected budget shortfall of $3.9 million next year. This year’s budget is $124 million.
Manhas said he expects to lose 22 teaching positions and 11 classified jobs (cooks, custodians, etc.) and believes attrition will account for about half the lost teaching slots. The district likely will issue reduction in force notices to about 10 new teachers because the district has a “last hired, first fired” policy.
North Thurston likely will draw down its ending fund balance from $7 million to $4 million, Manhas said.
Thurston County is fortunate that local school district officials have been able to set aside money for these rainy days. The cuts will be much deeper in districts without money in the bank.
Of course all this is speculation at this point and dependent upon the final budget adopted by the 2011 Legislature.
All three superintendents — Manhas, Kirby and Lahmann — are keenly aware that they will have to ask voters to approve maintenance and operation tax levies next spring.
The fact that the three districts are on top of this budget crisis and able to minimize cuts to classroom instruction should serve educators well next year when voters will have a chance to reward them for their fiscal discipline.