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City offers MISD a helping hand

With enrollment shrinking and revenues dropping for the Island’s school district, the city has begun evaluating its options to help the district save a buck or two.

The city is currently in the process of devising its next biennial budget, 2009-2010, which the Council must approve this fall. In addition to what is provided today, the city is looking to absorb the school-facilities scheduler, crossing guards, parking and security at the high school, and the cost of moving school buses to the city maintenance shop into its general fund.

During a planning session before the City Council meeting last Monday, City Manager Rich Conrad and Parks and Recreation Director Pete Mayer showed that the city could aid the school district financially by continuing current services without reimbursement. Conrad and Mayer’s presentation showed the Councilmembers the preliminary cost estimates of how and where the city could further help the district.

“There’s an array of services we evaluated as to what the cost is to the school district now, what they would cost at an ideal level of service and what it would cost if the city was paying,” Conrad told Councilmembers.

A subcommittee established by the Council late last year also highlighted a few ways in which the city could add to its current contributions. The costs vary as much as the ideas, with some savings occurring in operations cost and others through capital improvement projects.

One idea proposed was incorporating the school facilities scheduler — currently done by Ann Meisner — into a city staff position. Mayer said the city already has its own scheduler for public facilities, but the amount of work for school fields would require the same current full-time position.

“We have our own scheduling software system, and through that system we schedule some school facilities and we have a collective long-term agreement to get all public facilities under the same system,” Mayer said.

The extra cost for the city to pay Meisner’s salary would be around $43,000. The city already pays around $87,000 a year toward software and scheduling. Enhancing this amount to include school facilities would cost the city about $128,000, Mayer said.

Deputy Mayor El Jahncke reminded the group that it should look at aiding public safety measures first since that is the city’s first priority.

“Some of these are essentially a no-brainer, such as the [school] resource officer,” said Jahncke. “I think public safety is the logical area to expand funding because we need to look at this in the context of our budget.”

There were several public safety savings costs that were presented to the Council. Those include funding school crossing guards as well as parking enforcement and security at the high school. According to Mayer, the district pays $60,000 annually for security and parking enforcement. Crossing guards cost the school district about $66,000 a year.

Under some current programs and services, the city already contributes to funding several school services. Those include supplying a DARE officer and school resource officer from the police department, counseling from Youth and Family Services and athletic field maintenance.

“We could help the school district financially by absorbing those costs,” Conrad said.

District Superintendent Gary Plano said classrooms would benefit from such a partnership.

“We welcome the opportunity to partner with the city on ways for the city to absorb some school district costs typically related to safety, health and human services. This allows the district to redirect resources back to the classroom,” the superintendent said.

Regarding operational costs, Conrad suggested that the city decline some reimbursements the district pays for services currently provided by the city.

For example, the school district pays $176,000 for Youth and Family Service counseling each year while the city pays $243,000. By covering the district’s portion, the city could fully fund the work for about $420,000 a year.

The district also refunds $16,700 for the school resource officer (SRO) who works at the high school and middle school. Conrad said one way to help would be to continue funding the SRO without reimbursement. Another $60,000 is spent by the district to maintain its athletic fields. The city could pick up that cost as well.

According to Island resident and co-chair of the Committee for Mercer Island Schools, Frank Morrison, the money saved is needed. He said decreasing student enrollment and the growing cost of education are putting pressure on the district’s operating budget.

Since the city and district share the same tax base, they have this unique opportunity to save district dollars, Morrison said. While every little bit would help, Morrison conceded that finding alternative funding for schools remains a challenge.

“It’s a start but still not enough,” he said. “We still have a long way to go. With careful study and work we’ll get there.”

Finally, there was some discussion among the Councilmembers as to how the city could combine school improvements with its upcoming parks improvement levy.

While no formal actions were taken, the Council directed Conrad to return with more concrete numbers and the feasibility of tying the education financing in with park financing.

“It’s clear from the last election [March 11] that education issues command high voter approval, probably more so than parks,” said Councilmember Dan Grausz. “To have a ballot that supports both would be a notion of improving the overall community. I think that would have appeal.”

Annual costs District City

YFS counseling $174,000 $420,000

Crossing Guards $66,000 $0

Resource Officer $16,700 $84,000

Facilities scheduler $43,000 $87,000

HS parking/security $60,000 $0

School fields $60,000 $0

D.A.R.E. $0 $113,000

Preschool special Ed $175,000 $0

School nursing $340,000 $0

Guidance counseling $645,000 $0

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