Up to $3 million less for MISD in 09-10

It’s hard to escape the news of budget cuts, jobs lost and the generally grim economic forecast. The state legislature started its new session in mid-January, and citizens are waiting anxiously to see how state funds will be spent, perhaps none more so than school districts across the state.

It is no different for the Mercer Island School District, which recently held a community meeting to share information about the district’s current and future financial state.

The district sits in a solid place for the current year, according to Superintendent Gary Plano, who said that last year ended with a 4 percent reserve.

“Frankly, we’re in a very, very good place,” said Plano. According to him, MISD sits in a good place compared to other districts in the area, some of which are in state receivership, meaning that the state has taken over the school from a financial standpoint. The challenge is figuring out how to react and what to expect when the state finalizes the budget for the next biennium.

“It’s a serious time to be in education,” he said. Schools around the state will not know for sure how deep the state funding cuts will be until later in the spring, but after seeing Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed budget, most districts have a starting-off point. Plano said during his presentation that the governor’s budget is only the first of three pieces. Both the House and Senate will create their own budget before a final version is hammered out. Plano added that the next revenue forecast will be released in March, and is expected to be even worse than the one released in December. Some projections indicate it is possible that another $2 billion could be added to the state deficit. Overall, Plano said it is possible that the MISD could see between $1 and $3 million less from the state next year.

Gregoire’s proposed budget includes up to a 24 percent cut to I-728 Initiative funds, which specifically targets class size reductions and gives money for the professional development of teachers and staff. This year, MISD’s I-728 funds contributed $1.7 million to fund 17 teachers in the district, and paid for one contracted staff workday. The money also helps contribute to programs at the elementary level. Plano said that, depending on how things play out, it is possible that I-728 could go away entirely.

Another big unknown is the unfunded mandates which come from the state level. Every year, the state requires districts to do things not funded with state dollars, such as the money added to teacher’s pension funds required last year. Plano said that districts can probably expect to see more such mandates as the state attempts to close the budget gap.

At an administrative level, Plano said that Mercer Island is about as lean as it can be following a management review with the Puget Sound Educational Service District last year. Following those results, the administration reduced their staff and a reorganization of the central office will go into effect on July 1.

“We’re now about as thin as we can be,” said Plano. Now the focus will be on how to use those positions as effectively and efficiently as possible. Plano assured parents that the district is doing everything it can to ensure that students are as unaffected as possible. The district’s approach is to minimize any and all impact on current student programs; however, that could quickly change depending on the numbers.

“That will be very difficult if cuts hit $3 million,” Plano cautioned. “We’re already maximized for efficiency and staff. We’re looking at efficiency in order to be prudent with our fiscal vision. We hope people can step up and help us fill the gap.”

Plano and Washington Education Association President Mary Lindquist, a former Mercer Island teacher, urged those in attendance to contact their state representatives to remind them how important it is to fund public education. Lindquist said that the state ranks 45th in the nation for per pupil expenditures and 46th overall for class size.

“That is simply unacceptable,” said Lindquist.

The meeting broke into discussion groups where parents and community members were asked to talk about what they want to preserve and how to encourage people to continue supporting the district.

“We’ve got this vision, but it’s like this big hole is being dug under us,” said Board president Janet Frohnmayer.

One of the smaller groups said it was important to keep the class sizes small, or if sizes had to increase, to offer more in-class parent help where possible, such as at the elementary level. Attracting and retaining quality teachers was also high on the list. There were a few ideas tossed around by parents about areas where cuts could be made. Those included transportation, some field trips and P.E. at the high school level, since many students meet the requirements through sports and other alternatives.

Plano said that following the meeting, many parents expressed their support for “delivering a 21st century education that prepares students to convert information into knowledge and create innovative solutions demanded by tomorrow’s world.” He added that all of the groups discussed class size and the continued importance of professional development for teachers.

Ralph Young, the co-chair for the Mercer Island Schools Foundation, said that despite the hard economic times, this is a chance to see opportunity, not obstacles. He stated that if there was ever a time when the schools had a need for fundraising help it is now, as he called the community to action.

“Everyone on the Island needs to know the impact. From a fundraising standpoint, if there was ever that galvanizing need it is now, and there are different ways of participating. The short-term needs require immediate action. Everyone in the community needs to understand the situation. We need a sustainable model to fill the gap between state funding and local,” said Young. He added that long-term solutions will come from the state level, which can and will take a while longer.

“We can’t do this without you as partners,” Plano told parents and community members. “You’ve been incredibly generous. We need partners to build and maintain our 2020 vision.”

Plano’s next steps will be to study the information discussed within the small groups and come back to the community at a later date to gather more feedback.

Parents were urged to join the PTSA Listservs for their schools to get updated information on events and to communicate what they learned with others on the Island to raise awareness on the issue.

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