School district budget shortfall could reach $2.5M

Actions in Olympia last week increased the Mercer Island School District’s projected deficit woes by nearly $500,000 for the 2009-2010 school year, pushing the total to approximately $2.5 million.

The first dose of bad news arrived on May 6 as MISD Superintendent Gary Plano said he learned that the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) disagreed with the district’s proposal on spending federal stimulus money for education. Plano and MISD officials had proposed spending money dedicated through the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) on existing budget needs. But OSPI blocked the request, saying the district would have to create a new special needs student program to take advantage of the funding.

“When you add the additional funding that has strings attached, that drove up the deficit,” he said. “They write the rules.”

Gov. Christine Gregoire then struck the second blow when she ruled out a special legislative session on May 7, ending hope that a school-levy-equalization funding bill stuck in the state House would pass. Plano said MISD budget planners had already discounted a change in the formula, but the failure to pass the reform comes at a crucial time. The bill, HB 1776, was expected to recalculate how districts receive state funding and net MISD about $333,000. Local state Rep. Marcie Maxwell, a co-sponsor of the bill, blamed Republicans for derailing the reform effort with an 11th hour filibuster.

“I certainly understand the need for funds, coming from a school board background,” Maxwell said. “It was a very frustrating evening.”

The former Renton school board member said the formula that hands about $236 million to poorer school districts is outdated and the bill would have reduced the net contributing district’s obligation by $60 million. In the future, Maxwell hopes future funding for education will increase after the legislature strengthens the definition of basic education. But that’s cold comfort for school districts facing huge budget cuts now.

“Every district is working on a reduced budget,” she said. “I’m hoping we can put this difficult time behind us.”

The deepening budget hole came as an anti-climax after the Mercer Island community rallied a record-breaking fundraiser, raising over $423,000 to help support the district.

While his office was still refining the exact numbers for its budget, Plano said the district would freeze current funding in the instruction department to save money and could revisit proposed cuts for next year.

“We may look at further staff reductions,” he said. “In addition to classified staff, I will be revising staff reductions to see if further reductions are necessary.”

Meeting with PTA members on May 8, School Board member Janet Frohnmayer tried to reassure those in attendance that the difference could be made up by speaking frankly with the community and asking for their continued support.

“We have to remember, this could be chaos in the district, but it isn’t,” she said. “We’re doing a great job.”

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