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MISF hopes to ‘bridge the gap’ for teachers’ jobs

Facing a projected deficit of close to $1.6 million for the next school year, the Mercer Island School District is pegging its hopes of saving 13 teaching positions on an unlikely source: the Mercer Island Schools Foundation (MISF).

Spurred by its record-breaking April 28 fundraiser, MISF Executive Director Penny Yantis said the nonprofit foundation is preparing to launch a last-minute campaign to “preserve the excellence of Mercer Island schools” and spare the cuts to teaching staff.

“The donations will be used to retain teachers here, now,” she said. “This is an unprecedented time.”

Yantis said the community was under the impression that foundation money could not be used for teacher salaries — an impression she is aiming to correct.

“Normally, the foundation covers textbooks, professional development, equipment for classrooms,” she said. “This is an unprecedented situation.”

The effort is also planned to coordinate with all PTA organizations in the district to maximize their outreach.

The last time the School Board was faced with similar circumstances was likely when the foundation was formed in 1981. At that time, the state legislature imposed a school district levy lid cap, limiting the amount which local school districts could raise in taxes to pay for their needs to provide K-12 education.

District policies concerning donations for staff funding are addressed by a 2001 guideline which details that money can be directed at existing teachers, but only if done so equitably between schools and on a limited basis that does not create an ongoing commitment of funding.

The salaries of the 13 positions are estimated to cost the district nearly $1 million. While the cuts are unwelcome, they are better than the pain shared in other Eastside communities. The MISD’s 5 percent staffing cut is lighter than Bellevue’s 5.5 percent or Issaquah’s whopping 14.4 percent proposed reduction in teachers.

The teacher jobs under threat of elimination are certificated staff. MISD Superintendent Gary Plano said he has asked principals at each school to decide how cuts will be made through reducing or eliminating positions, such as librarians or activities coordinators.

“We eliminated just about every non-teaching position from our [certificated] staff,” said MIHS Principal John Harrison.

Plano also said the number of retirements, which give the district more flexibility in staffing requirements, was the lowest in several years, and blamed it on the uncertain economy.

More than 3,000 teachers were notified last week that they may not have a job in the fall. Meeting in Spokane for the Washington Education Association conference on May 13, WEA President and former Mercer Island teacher Mary Lindquist freely criticized the budget that came out of the Legislature.

“It will take us years to climb out of the hole this economic recession created for public education,” she said.

Local Teacher’s Association representative and MIHS social studies teacher Mike Radow said he had been closely tracking the foundation’s success for months and welcomed its “Bridge the Gap” fundraiser.

“It’s a shame the state government hasn’t found a way to fund education,” he said. “We’re lucky to have a schools foundation that would fund this.”

“It’s a tragedy. Classes will be larger. Programs will be suffering.

“Most people would say the most important part of the classroom is the teacher in front of them.

“We can’t use MISF dollars to supplement our salaries. I don’t think we’re expecting that. The foundation has said they’re interested in saving those positions.”

The elimination of coordination time, however, does not mean elimination of program. The principal will coordinate the Bridges program and other student activities.

“We shouldn’t have to rely on altruistic parents and communities to support our teacher’s salaries,” said WEA spokesperson Mike Wood. “The fact that our communities are willing to do that just shows how the state is failing in its duty to support basic education.”

More information on the MISD’s proposed budget cuts can be found online at www.misd.k12.wa.us.

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