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Between a Rock and a Hard Place

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Between a Rock and a Hard Place

School district protects staff pay, takes a hard look at busing, and cuts over $1 million from the budget

When the board of trustees for the Lake Pend Oreille School District sat down a few weeks back to begin the process of developing a budget for the next fiscal year, they began painting a picture with a very broad brush. They didn’t have much choice at that point: the majority of funding for local schools is based on how many kids show up for class, a number they won’t know until the doors open in September. And how much money they’ll receive for each of those students from the state was still undetermined, though the rumors coming out of Boise were suggesting it would be less—maybe much less—than in years previous.

Which is how closing Northside Elementary school came up for discussion, due to administrative fears of losing close to a million dollars if a provision for protection from declines in enrollment were no longer to be funded by the state.

If you want a lot of people to show up at a meeting, consider closing their school. Hundreds of people from the Northside area came to meetings and/or shared their concern with keeping their school open with the board and administration.

By the second meeting, rumors said ADA protection would remain funded by the state; closing Northside was off the table. In addition, the legislature’s Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee had given more direction toward where funding would be, and the board’s brush grew narrower.

A district budget committee consisting of staff representing all different categories across the district (high school teachers, elementary teachers, classified staff, and principals) prepared recommendations to the board for how to deal with the projected loss of around $1.9 million, about ten percent of the total, from the district’s general fund budget.

They began with some ground rules, based on the district’s goals. The first was that next year’s budget, as this year’s did, should set aside $180,000 for “contingency staffing.” These are dollars used to fund positions that were not planned for in budgeting, but that become necessary once actual enrollment in the schools is seen; providing teachers for what the district calls “bubble classes,” for example. In addition, next year’s budget would add an additional $85,000 to that fund. It was also agreed that the district would not add any dollars to its $2.3 million “undesignated fund balance,” which is essentially a savings account held by the district; a rainy day fund in the common parlance.

And then recommendations dealt with specific cuts from the state. The legislature had said it would no longer provide funding for teacher training in the Gifted and Talented program; Limited English Proficiency classes; textbooks; and teacher classroom supplies. The committee suggested that the district eliminate these items from their budget as well instead of attempting to fund them themselves.

The legislature also cut funding for pay: a 4 percent cut to the reimbursements for classified and certified staff, and a 6.5 percent cut in reimbursements for pay to administrators. In addition, the legislature decided not to provide reimbursement for “movement” on the salary grid; essentially, raises in pay are given for each additional year of experience, capping out after anywhere from six to 13 years, depending on level of education. In addition, teaching and administrative staff can earn additional pay increases based on their increased level of education when they earn additional college credits during the summer months.

This legislative cut wasn’t acceptable to the budget committee, and the recommendation to the board was that cuts in pay not be passed on to employees and that, further, staff receive all pay raises they are entitled to due to experience and education. Meeting these provisions added around $693,000 to the budget.

In addition, the committee felt that eliminating all funding for the Idaho Drug Free Youth program, as per the JFAC recommendation, was not suitable for LPOSD and therefore their recommendation included continued funding for one full time prevention specialist and two stipends, at a cost of $44,000.

The district has $355,000 of unspent money it can carry forward from this year’s school budget into the next; in addition, voters approved a two-year supplemental levy last spring and the second year of those dollars enter the budget next year. By utilizing some of those levy dollars to cover shortages in funding from the state, the committee’s final recommendation to the board cut the shortfall for next year to just over a million dollars.

With little discussion, the board agreed to those recommendations, and focused their brush on additional cuts.

Some of those strokes were relatively easy to paint. $180,000 to buy new social studies textbooks? Gone. Use federal stimulus dollars to pay for special ed and Title 1 classroom parapros and aides? Do it. Use $200,000 of the computer replacement monies provided for in the supplemental levy to cover other expenses, and replace those monies with $200,000 available from the plant facility levy given that Kootenai School construction is coming in under budget? Piece of cake. Cut 3 percent from the maintenance budget? Snip.

Other parts of the picture took longer to take form.

Extra-Curricular

Although the district’s extra-curricular program, which includes everything from football to band to Aca-Deca, is funded entirely through supplemental levy dollars, it still took some cuts. Athletic directors at both high schools and Sandpoint Middle School were asked to prepare scenarios with 3 percent, 5 percent and 7 percent cuts to their programs.

For all three schools, a seven percent cut would equate to cutting actual programs for students. Cuts at the 3 and 5 percent level could be made by cutting supply budgets, putting off the purchase of new uniforms, and in the case of the Sandpoint schools, limiting the amount money they spend to rent fields from the city, such as Travers Park and Memorial Field.

The board asked for a 5 percent cut to the programs.

Staffing

The district’s steadily declining budget can be laid at the feet, in part, of a steadily declining enrollment base. In the last eleven school years, enrollment has declined in all but four; and in those years when enrollment increased, it was never by more than about 50 or 60 students. In the last five years, 499 students have been lost.

And while fewer students doesn’t necessarily mean a need for fewer staff—it still takes a whole bus driver to drive the bus no matter how many kids are on it—continued lower enrollment is driving staff cuts in next year’s budget.

Sandpoint Middle School and Clark Fork High School are each going to lose one teacher. Sandpoint High School will lose four, along with a vice-principal. Kootenai Elementary will lose a Title 1 teacher, and at Sandpoint High, the certified librarian will be replaced with a parapro. Nine classified staff hired this year will not be included in the fall budget.

But what about that staff pay? “I can’t say I’m very comfortable with the idea of staff maintaining pay and even getting raises given the current economic climate,” said Marc Woller, a resident of Ponderay who, after retirement from retail management has opened an online business. “That doesn’t reflect the reality that taxpayers are looking at right now.”

“Most of us haven’t had a pay raise in several years, and have seen our benefits cut,” said Sagle resident Doris Matz to the board, indicating this decision would make her think twice about voting for a supplemental levy again next year.

“I thought the legislature was very clear about their intent,” explained Representative George Eskridge. “There were concerns with parity, given that other state employees are seeing pay frozen, or cuts to their pay and cuts to benefits. I expect hearing that cuts to the pay reimbursements were not passed on to school staffs is not going to go over well with legislators. It’s good that this district has the flexibility to do that,” he added, “but the choice might have unintended consequences when the legislature convenes next year.”

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, per capita income in Idaho declined more than four percent last year, a larger decline than in any other state in the nation (www.bea.gov/regional/spi/action.cfm). And income here is already low: the 2009 per capita income figure of $31,632 is better only than Mississippi and Utah.

A report by the Idaho Department of Labor (2009 Idaho Fringe Benefit Survey) shows that just 56 percent of employers offer health insurance benefits to their employees, and of those, employers pay an average of 83 percent of the cost (the employee pays the other 17 percent) for full-time employees, and 69 percent of the cost for part-time employees. Approximately ten percent of Idaho employers offer both medical and dental coverage; 75 percent offer some type of paid leave (sick days, holiday pay, etc.) and slightly over half offer a retirement benefit. “Government employers,” the report reads, are “more likely to offer benefits than private sector employers.”

In contrast, a first-year teacher in the Lake Pend Oreille School District earns $31,750, with the highest paid teacher, one with 13 or more years experience and either a Bachelor’s degree plus 60 additional credits or a Master’s plus 20, at $54,176.

Classified staff can earn anywhere from minimum wage ($7.55 an hour) to $28.24 an hour. A classified director can earn from $36,994 to $76,315.

Earnings for administrators at the school level range from $55,207 to $88,372.

Discussion of this issue is hampered. On the one hand, those uncomfortable with pay raises, or even with maintaining the status quo, are also uncomfortable with appearing as though they don’t support fair wages for honest work. On top of that there is somehow a moral value attached to questioning the pay of teachers, and it extends to the pay of bus drivers, school secretaries and administrators as well. On the other hand, district officials tend to say next to nothing about issues of pay and benefits, and certainly don’t offer an opposing opinion, in fear of finding themselves guilty of unfair labor practices in the area of negotiation. Developing a contract between the district and its staff which covers pay and benefits is a process protected by law, and stating a public opinion, especially before the process is over, is simply not done.

And the process, it should be said, is not over. While staff pay is covered by a negotiated agreement that is in force through the next fiscal year, the area of benefits is still under discussion; while pay has been protected for the upcoming school year, there is no guarantee that benefits will remain the same.

Currently, LPOSD pays 100 percent of the cost of health, dental and vision insurance coverage for every employee who works more than 20 hours per week. Other benefits include paid sick days, personal days, extra duty pay, retirement and around $75,000 a year spent to reimburse staff for their expenses in taking further education courses.

Becky Kiebert is the principal at Sandpoint High School, and also served on the district’s budget committee. She says the group considered several areas when making the recommendations regarding pay.

“First, we’re not in a financial emergency. The budget is certainly a challenge, but we feel that for many years the district has been careful in its planning and that we’re therefore prepared to meet this challenge. That should be a point of pride for our community... [that] we can address funding cuts in a way that seeks to protect the robust and viable program we’ve built here. Our recommendations made cuts as far away from the classroom as we could.”

In addition, she pointed to concerns that once pay is cut a precedent has been set and a new norm established. “It’s easy to go down and a lot harder to come back up again,” she said. And while she has sympathy for what taxpayers throughout Idaho are going through in regard to declining wages, she points out that staff at LPOSD are not exempt from that pain. “Classroom supply budgets were cut this year. That’s $300 a year that teachers will likely pay out of their own pocket. And truthfully, we’ve been “feeling the pain” for a long time.” An honest comparison of wages and benefits, she says, “compare[s] apples to apples. We don’t compare well with pay for school staff around us, and we’re behind in our insurance package.”

And at the last budget hearing, staff lost another benefit when the board cut the Employee Assistance Program, which provides counseling for employees with financial, legal or emotional issues.

Kiebert acknowledges the difficulties the board faces with this budget, but says the committee’s recommendations meet “our goal to retain and recruit quality teachers.”

By the time of the last budget hearing, the picture was close to finished with only two big areas, kindergarten and the Sandpoint Charter School, left to consider. The budget concerns for both revolve around busing.

Kindergarten

Idaho doesn’t require students to attend kindergarten and, if they do attend kindergarten, doesn’t require the school district to bus them there. Kindergarten mid-day transportation costs approximately $56,000 per year.

If the district quits providing transportation, will some parents choose not to have their children attend kindergarten? That’s not really a risk the board was willing to take.

“We know,” pointed out Superintendent Dick Cvitanich, “that about 50 percent of students entering kindergarten don’t have kindergarten skills.” The kindergarten program is essential to developing students who will function well in elementary school.

Another potential “solution” to the issue of kindergarten transportation cost was to have an all-day program that runs in two ‘shifts;’ for example, one group of students attending on Monday/Tuesday and every other Wednesday, while a second group attends Thursday/Friday and every other Wednesday. On the surface that seemed possible, as kindergarten students would become a part of the pool of students  transported before and after school. In practice, it can be harder to achieve given time requirements, snow days, Monday holidays and Wednesday early dismissals.

After looking at the pros and cons, the board decided to implement a trial program where kindergarten is offered in morning and afternoon programs, as it is now, with transportation provided to and from AM kindergarten, but only from the PM kindergarten to home. Parents would be responsible for getting their children to school for the afternoon classes.

Charter School

Lake Pend Oreille School District provides busing for Sandpoint Charter School students on their existing routes; on the surface, it’s a win/win situation for both. Charter students get busing the school itself couldn’t pay to provide and because those students are transported only on existing routes, there’s a net increase to the LPOSD budget. Cost to LPOSD of having an additional stop at the Charter School is around $1,000 for the year. The Charter School, however, pays the district $22,000 for the service.

So why consider eliminating transportation for the Charter School? Answering that is almost as difficult as opposing pay increases for teachers, because the district does not want to be in a position of appearing to oppose the rights of parents to choose whether or not their child attends a given school.

But the superintendent’s job is not to advocate for all students in the county, it’s to advocate for what’s best for the students in the Lake Pend Oreille School District. And supporting students in going to the Charter School costs the school district money.

“We’re not just making it very easy for students to attend the Charter School,” explained Cvitanich. “We’re helping [it] to grow at our expense.”

Currently, the state funds education to the tune of approximately $6,500 per student. As a student who attends the Charter School is therefore not attending a school in the Lake Pend Oreille School District, LPOSD is losing this potential money.

The Charter School is not, of course, the only alternative competing for students. Homeschooling, virtual academies, private schools, church schools... it’s unknown how many students are attending school in Bonner County in other than the traditional, public school setting. But given the enrollment declines, it’s likely the number is large. The Charter School, however, is the only public school alternative where the district is actually providing help to parents who send their children there.

“This is more of a philosophical question than a budget question,” offered trustee Mindy Cameron. And one that caused some obvious consternation for the board.

“It’s betting on the come,” said Steve Youngdahl, about whether providing busing makes attending the Charter School more attractive, and he indicated he wasn’t sure that not providing transportation would cause students to stay in the public school program. “I don’t think [the availability of transportation] impacts whether or not they attend,” he said.

But it was clear that losing the money the Charter School pays toward busing would subtract dollars from the budget.

“I’m not in favor of doing this,” he said, and Ashley Aumick concurred. “I think it could do more harm than good,” said Joan Fish, who added, “I think [the] goodwill [we generate from this] is more important.”

Board Chair Vickie Pfeifer agreed with Cameron that it raises a question, however, that needs to be addressed, even if not during this budget process.

“We need to take a look at that in the future,” she said and with that, the budgeting process was over.

The budget isn’t finalized; the board will officially adopt the budget at its regular June meeting, by which time negotiations regarding benefits should be complete.

Four meetings, one million dollars. It’s not a pretty picture, but it’s one that district staff and board trustees think will take our schools through the current economic turmoil with the least amount of pain.

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Landon Otis

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education, Lake Pend Oreille School District, levy, funding, Northside Elementary

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