Major changes planned for school budget

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By Brandon Mattingly

Changes are on the way for the Washington County School District, thanks to what Superintendent Robin Cochran described as “the perfect storm,” which has led to a need to decrease its budget by $935,000 for the 2013-14 school year to reach a 15 percent contingency.

A final draft of the budget is due in May, but according to the rough draft that was recently created, it looks like changes for local teachers as a whole will be minimal.

School staff will go from 187 days to a 185-day schedule, but many teachers will have the option to work those days as part of a professional learning initiative, while administration staff will simply lose two days.

“Teachers are actually going to get those days back,” Cochran said. “Teachers have been held harmless through this entire process.”

The district will also implement a furlough over winter break — from Dec. 20 until Jan. 1 — in which all schools and district offices will be closed.

Classified and certified teachers already receive holiday days off for Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, with classified teachers also receiving Christmas Eve off.

“All staff were required to take two days without pay,” Cochran said. “The other three days for classified (teachers) and four days for certified (teachers) can be non-contract, unpaid or vacation days, whatever they want to take.”

Cochran said input from the staff went into the decision of how to handle the furlough, with all but four of the 30 to 40 staff members polled saying they wanted at least two unpaid days off during the holidays.

Between the savings in salary and energy, the district is hoping to save $23,028.19 with the furlough and $80,000 by cutting back to a 185-day schedule.

“This may not work, but we looked at what services we provide over winter break, and it wasn’t a busy time for reports and things like that,” Cochran said. “We felt like we could do this. We may run into some unforeseen things, but when we’re being asked to do more with less we have to be creative.”

Overstaffing has led to the need for creativity and movement among teachers for the next school year as well. Student-to-staff ratios have increased, and the district is currently looking to find places for five tenured teachers, who would bump a non-tenured teacher from his or her position if necessary. The potential of retirements and teachers leaving for other districts allow the possibility of not seeing any cutbacks in non-tenured staff. Non-tenured teachers must be notified by May 7 (90 days before the first day of school) if their contracts will not be renewed with the district.

Among the factors that have led to Washington County’s need to reduce the budget are: SEEK funding, which is based on enrollment, decreasing from $6.9 million to $6.3 million; $750,000 for land for the new high school; the district being responsible for a higher percentage of CERS and KTRS than in years past; and fewer students, requiring less funding and staff.

“The plumbing in the high school kitchen was backing up, and (the health department) said we had so many days to fix it, and that wasn’t budgeted,” Cochran added. “At North (Washington), kids were having asthma attacks and other problems. Fresh-air units were $264,000 to install. Those are things that are unforeseen ahead of time. I think that’s why the board is cautious about just saying to spend a certain amount of the contingency.”

Other factors that led to the current financial situation are multiple federal grants that paid teachers’ salaries coming to an end, and KSBIT, the district’s insurance carrier, going broke. Washington County was then assessed at $248,000 since 1972, a number that will likely be paid over several years in the form of a bond.

Apart from the furlough and the change in schedule, cuts to the technology budget, band, bus routes, etc. are on the way.

Some of the changes, while they appear to be drastic, still leave Washington County with plenty to work with.

The technology budget, for instance, is made up of $35,000 in KETS funding, which is matched by the district. That’s on top of the $119,000 set aside from the general fund, for a total of $189,000.

After speaking with other districts, Cochran found that most only operate on the KETS funding when they’re not taking on a large initiative, meaning WC is still ahead of the curve, even if they continue with their decision to withhold $85,000 in technology funding next year.

“One of the first things people say when they come to visit our schools is that we have a lot of technology, and our kids are really lucky,” Cochran said. “We’re proud of that and want to keep doing that.”

Band, which currently receives about $30,000 in yearly funding, may see closer to $20,000 next year. Bus routes, particularly in northern Washington County, may combine where the district deems necessary. Also, Washington County will not purchase a bus for the upcoming school year, which will be a savings of $90,000. The reassignment of one of central office’s secretaries ($15,000) and a cut to the maintenance budget ($75,000) are among the other changes the district is planning to make to reach 15 percent contingency.

For now, the suggested changes would leave the school district to dip $22,951.81 into the contingency, but they’re hopeful that some of the projected savings have been underrepresented.

“When we plug all of the numbers in, it could come out that we end up better off than we’re anticipating,” Cochran said. “Then it would become a matter of deciding where to put money back. That’s what I’m hoping occurs.”

Until then, Washington County is planning to make major changes. Cochran emphasized that the entire district is in it together and that a solid plan is in place.

“We’re going to be OK, and we’re going to get through it,” she assured.