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Board tries to keep budget cuts out of classroom

The Mercer Island School Board, faced with a strained 2008-09 budget, met to discuss its budget reduction principles and ways to keep the focus on student needs last month.

On April 24, the board held a special meeting to discuss updates made to the 2008-09 Mercer Island School District preliminary budget. Led by Associate Superintendent of Business Services Liz Dodd, the group went over the most recent estimates for student enrollment, which brings in $4,800 per student in FTE, and the expected reduction in MISD staff, among other expenses.

Dodd has estimated an ending fund balance of $1.5 million with a deficit of approximately $30,600 for 2008-09. According to these numbers, the district will need to agree on $869,300 in budget reductions.

Although open enrollment, which was approved earlier this spring, could bring in as much as $719,400, the School Board still has plenty of financial tightening to do. The question is, where will they make the cuts?

“Historically, the district has always kept revenues away from the classroom. Reductions have been made on the support side — custodians, technology, maintenance,” Dodd said. “We’re at a point now where reductions are at the minimal level, so [our cuts] are affecting the classroom.”

Yet School Board members, well aware of their challenge to cut $869,300 without touching academic programs, proposed re-evaluating their budget reduction principles to better protect student needs.

Currently, the principles prioritize five points: “Every effort should be made to 1) Minimize the impact of budget reductions on student learning. 2) Utilize retirements and resignations to achieve any necessary staff reduction. 3) Allow continued progress toward achieving the Boards Ends. 4) Minimize the impact on programs within the core academic day including the arts. 5) Minimize district efforts to cut negotiated employee contract incentives.”

Looking over these principles, board members emphasized the importance of standing behind the district’s fourth aim — minimizing budgetary reductions to core academic programs. Alternative methods, such as merging art classes and flexing teacher schedules, could help the district meet this aim.

“We do consider the arts as basic [education]. A great deal of creativity can go into scheduling,” said Associate Superintendent of Instructional Services Kathy Morrison.

School Board President Pat Braman said that mathematics — particularly in the high school — was another subject that should not be taken away from.

“Math is an area of concern. Rather than make cuts, we need to improve this area,” Braman said, noting recent statistics that show many of the classes MIHS students take off-campus, either through private schools or running start, are for math credit.

The school board also discussed the current decline in district enrollment. A deciding factor in next year’s budget, administrators are scratching their heads over FTE revenue and expenditure for 2008-09. To be safe, Dodd left open a comfortable margin for error.

“We’re being conservative with our revenue estimates,” Dodd said. “We’re in a reduction mode staff-wise at the high school. We’re expecting the freshman class to be smaller.”

Dodd estimates that the school district will be down 95 students next year, which equates to a $455,620 loss in revenue. The decline also affects staff. Approximately eight faculty members will be let go, the budget reports, costing the district $480,000 FTE.

Yet the business administrator emphasized that, compared with neighboring districts such as Bellevue, which needs to trim approximately $4.5 million, Mercer Island is in a relatively comfortable situation.

“We aren’t looking at significant reductions like in other districts, which are looking at closing down schools or canceling programs,” Dodd said. “So [our cuts] are, in scope, minor reductions.”

The School Board will continue to work with Dodd on the preliminary budget until specific cuts are agreed upon this summer.

At the end of the meeting, Superintendent Gary Plano proposed that the board meet more frequently to discuss the district’s annual budget.

“Maybe we should visit the budget more often, considering enrollment and other factors. This way we can front-load the agenda every month,” he said.

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