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Schools ponder $800K question

Restore lost positions and programs, or balance the budget?

What will be the answer to the $800,000 question in 2013-14 for Hood River County School District?

In recommending a $50 million budget for next year on Monday, the district budget committee attempted to answer that question.

The budget, with $1.4 million in cuts to the general fund, involving the loss of a total of 14 district positions, next goes to the school board for adoption by June 26.

Under the new budget, the district will continue to levy the full $1.25 amount allowed under the Local Option levy, approved by voters two years ago. The Local Option levy has been $1.25 annually for the past five years.

The $800,000 in question is the potential anticipated additional funds that could come from the state later this year, and what to do with it: Use it to restore lost positions and programs, or dedicate it to balancing the budget?

The committee Monday decided on using it to balance the budget, which in recommended form has a $400,000 deficit.

The $800,000 additional revenue would come to the district if the $6.75 billion state education revenue comes to pass, as Supt. Charlie Beck said is likely.

But that money is not a certainty yet, and the budget recommendation approved Monday is based on a $6.55 billion formula, meaning the cuts are necessary.

In Monday’s meeting, district patrons and staff members stood and decried the elimination of teaching and instructional support jobs at Parkdale, Cascade Locks, Hood River Valley High School and other buildings. The commenters’ overriding message was to find other ways to make cuts besides teachers and others who work directly with students.

But the $1.4 million in cuts remain in place for the next school year. The school board has the leeway to make adjustments to the budget prior to formal adoption. The committee, which includes all members of the school board, reiterated the need to achieve the district goal of budget sustainability.

The individual staff members whose jobs could be affected have been notified by their supervisors, but the actual people and positions are still being decided upon, according to HRCSD Human Resources Director Kevin Noreen. Those affected will be notified by June 6.

Hood River Education Association president Kelvin Calkins was among those calling Monday for retention of teaching positions.

“I get the desire to have balanced budget,” but, he said, “the fundamental purpose of the district: We need to save the teaching positions.

“What I ask is, will you work as hard to save instructional staff as we have been working to save, as others have wanted us, to save those programs that are auxiliary to our purpose?”

A total of $276,000 will be cut from elementary school staff costs, and $89,740 at Wy’east (including a three-quarter teaching job) and $59,830 at Hood River Middle School (including a one-quarter teaching position and five hours daily custodial time). The high school will cut one teacher, a media specialist and an instructional assistant currently supervising drug and alcohol prevention.

Cuts to Special Education programs, across the district, totals $265,950, including one full-time position at Wy’east, half-time positions at the high school, Mid-Valley and Westside.

The budget also retains the $80,000 cut to Community Education and reduction of one district office staff position ($59,000).

The motion for recommendation, made by board member Bob Danko, calls on the district administration to direct any additional state school funds to shoring up the district’s beginning fund balance for 2013-14.

“I think what you heard when we got our answers on what districts that don’t have Local Options have that we don’t — it’s smaller class sizes,” board member Jeff Kopecky said. “If we want to keep class sizes down, that’s what the Local Option gives us.”

The committee reviewed its own purpose and scope of power in a lengthy discussion that also set the stage for potential changes in how future budgets are prepared, following the presentation of a set of recommendations by committee members David Russo and Heather Staten.

Russo, along with Julie Ramirez-Garcia, was elected in May and both will take office in July.

Committee member John Stehlik said, “From the public comment we heard I think we need to keep teachers in the classroom. We need to step back and look at administration and other places.”

But board member Mark Johnson was among those who stressed that it is up to the committee to pass a motion to recommend a “budget framework” and it is up to the school board to identify which specific funds are changed, reduced, or added to.

Russo said the committee should “focus on the idea of net positive sustainability” rather than specific numbers.

Danko said, “This is the first time we have seen these specific cuts, but the budget committee does not approve or disapprove specific cuts on the proposed reduction list. We approve a certain amount of General Fund and so on; on specific cuts we can give direction if we want for the superintendent and staff to go back and take some of these cuts off, but that’s not normally what the budget committee does.

“Our job is to establish the amount of what we can pay for, and it’s the superintendent and staff who get together, and determine (the changes).”

Committee member Chip Dickenson asked Finance Director Nick Hogan about the possibility of reducing the Local Option levy “in some sort of relation to extra dollars that come from state school funds.

“If we get $100,000 more from state school funding, maybe we would reduce the option by a certain amount. Can you adjust the Local Option on the news of increased dollars coming from the state?”

Danko asked, “Can we lower the Local Option; could the school board decide not to levy the full amount?”

Hogan responded, “Yes.”

Staten said, “I would be opposed to that approach. The voters just approved a bond levy last year, the economic climate hasn’t changed much and they knew the full extent of the levy at the time. We’re talking pretty deep cuts.

“I think it’s the last time to return money to the voters,” she said. “I think we should levy the full amount.”

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