City agrees to fund YFS school counselors one more year

The City Council has agreed on taking $135,000 from the city’s biennial budget to keep the Mercer Island School District’s Youth and Family Service (YFS) counseling program alive for one more year. This amount will be added to the $264,000 that the city already committed to the counseling program. Faced with serious budget woes, MISD announced earlier this year that it could not afford to continue paying for YFS counselors without an extra $135,000 from the city.

The decision, if approved at next week’s regular meeting, means that the School District will not have to lay off any of its seven YFS counselors during the 2009/2010 school year — a very real possibility until the Council’s recent vote.

The MISD first announced that it no longer could afford to fund its seven YFS counselors in 2008. District representatives turned to the city for help.

“These are services our city should provide to our children, and it’s time for the Council to step up and fully fund those services,” Islander Terry Pottmeyer told the City Council at a July 2008 meeting. “I ask that you [the Council] dig a little deeper into your pockets and fully fund the counseling program.”

The professional YFS counselors have worked at Island schools since 1990, when the city and school district signed an inter-local agreement allowing the city employees to serve MISD students. MISD and the city split the costs of the extra counselors, roughly 40 to 60 percent, until last year, when the city agreed to pay 100 percent of the tab for the 2008/2009 school year. This allowed the school district to save $183,000, which went toward educational needs.

Because the agreement was only valid for one year, the City Council had to decide if it would fund the counselors for 2009/2010, as the school district’s budget has since been cut by $1.6 million. Therefore, in early 2009, a City Council-School Board ad hoc sub-committee began developing a financial plan for the YFS counselors.

The group identified six alternatives to address the district’s immediate and long-term counseling needs, working off the school district’s statement that it could provide a maximum of $60,000 for YFS counselors. Among the options listed were one-time city funding for the 2009/2010 school year, reducing the number of full-time YFS counselors, cutting other YFS programs, reducing city employment in areas such as maintenance or arborist reprogramming, or a combination of two alternatives.

After studying the alternatives, the City Council decided to go with a combination of two alternatives. In the short term, the city will take $135,000 out of its biennial budget to keep all six YFS counselors working for the 2009/2010 school year. Once this agreement expires, the city will consider making citywide reductions to earn the money needed. Although the city would look at all areas for cutting costs, the number of full-time YFS counselors at MISD may also need to be reduced. However, City Council members were quick to point out that, if the district and city’s budget woes dissipate over the coming year, this second alternative will be re-examined.

“This gives us another year to solve the problem,” said City Mayor Jim Pearman, adding that the City Council will re-examine YFS funding options at its January 2010 Planning Session.

Meanwhile, the school district can rest assured that next year’s students will receive the same amount of YFS support as years past. This, according to Gary Plano, is the most important factor.

“I continue to be grateful for the support the City of Mercer Island provides for the Youth and Family partnership,” the superintendent said.

The City Council will vote to approve the 2009/2010 YFS counselor funding — a total of $459,800 — at its June 15 regular meeting.

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