Big cuts loom over schools

Budget cuts equal to 40 teaching positions are on the block for Hood River County Schools.

"We've got a serious funding problem," first-year superintendent Jerry Sessions told the school board Dec. 12 in its meeting at Westside School.

Fourth and fifth-grade singers performed at the start of the meeting as a demonstration of instruction happening at Westside. Yet music, art and other programs could face the axe if the state requires the district to cut an estimated $2.2 million over the next biennium.

The district would have to cut $464 per student, according to Sessions. It could be done by reducing teaching or classified positions, or omitting or cutting back programs. However, no teaching positions will be cut this year. In fact, the district will not need to make cuts in the 2001-2002 budget.

That "held-harmless" status is not likely remain in 2002-03, so district officials are urging legislators to consider tax increases and using revenue sources such as federal Tobacco Settlement funds instead of pure cuts. They also advocate delaying implementation of property tax limitation Measure 88, increasing the tobacco tax, and adding a one-year income tax surcharge. Sessions also said existing tax cuts, breaks or incentives could be rescinded.

"We have to let people know how bad it is," Sessions said.

"We have a window in the next 30 days to say to the legislature, `you have other options'," Sessions told the board. "That's our goal in the next 30 days, to put pressure on the legislature (regarding other sources)."

Board president Sue McCarthy said the district must talk to senior citizens as well as parents of students about the severity of the problem, so that they in turn can express their views to state leaders.

"These (prospective) cuts cut too deep. We can't meet the needs of kids if we cut eight percent," Sessions said. "There's other ideas out there. The main thing is not to cut," he said.

"Programs will definitely suffer, but we will try to protect the basic classroom," Sessions said. He does not foresee large cuts to sports.

"If you cut the whole sports program it's $650,000 so you're still short," he said.

Sessions said the district has four basic options considering the impending budget shortfall:

* Lower educational standards;

* Reduce options to kids including art, music, and extracurricular programs;

* Cut personnel

* Reduce the number of days the students are in class.

"None of these are good," Sessions said.

"There is no new revenue," he said, adding that once teachers positions are cut, "there is no new money coming in to get them back."

Sessions said the revenue crisis has resulted in a phenomenon among school superintendents.

"This is a statewide problem and we (superintendents) are going to take a statewide approach. It's the first time I've ever heard superintendents talking that way -- usually they're talking about looking out for their own district."

Though the budget cuts don't take effect this school year, Sessions said the district has already taken cost-cutting steps including prohibiting all field trips out of the district.

"We have clamped down considerably," he said. Other restrictions are spending on equipment purchases, no new computers, and no new tuition reimbursements for teachers.

"We've tried to take some steps to build up some of our savings," Sessions said. "People gearing up now that we have to be proactive and get out and do something."

Sessions and others met Thursday with Rep. Patti Smith (R-Corbett).

The district has met with Sen. Ted Ferrioli (R-John Day), who heads the revenue options committee, and on Thursday Sessions and others met with Rep. Patti Smith (R-Corbett).

Smith made it clear she feels that with the economy in recession, now is not the time to raise taxes.

"It's a horrible dilemma," Smith said of the budget crisis in her meeting with Sessions, McCarthy, Hood River Education Association president Kelvin Calkins, and Region 9 ESD Superintendent Pat Evenson-Brady.

"We need to look at all new programs," passed in the 2001 Legislative session, Smith told the group. "I don't want to make education the only thing that takes the fall. We've got to look at the big picture of the budget and we've got to be committed."

Evenson-Brady told Smith the ESD is already looking at a series of five-year budget reductions, including $70,000 in 2002-2003, including no ESD funding for the Wasco County Teen Parent Child Care Program, and cutting staff development and counseling. This year, ESD has already cut $222,977 in administrative costs and eliminated Talented and Gifted Programs and reduced by half the funding for behavior specialists and the Native American Program.

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