Battle Ground school district pares spending

Proposed budget down nearly 4% from 2010-11

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer

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BATTLE GROUND — More details emerged Monday as the Battle Ground school board held its first public hearing on a proposed $119.7 million operating budget for the 2011-12 school year.

Presented to board members, and a solitary district patron in attendance, the budget plan is about $4.8 million less than the $124.5 million budgeted for last year.

That’s a 3.8 percent reduction from 2010-11, driven by declines in state and federal education support, as well as an ongoing slide in student enrollment.

The proposal follows months of behind-the-scenes “interest-based negotiations” between district administrators, including Superintendent Shonny Bria, and representatives of all employee groups, from teachers to custodial and other support workers, to school principals.

Mary Beth Lynn, assistant superintendent for finance and school operations, called the package “a workable budget, not a fantastic budget. We had some real challenges, this year.”

Proposed changes, and their rationale, include:

• All staff will have unpaid furloughs: All district staff, from top administrators to teachers to building workers, will absorb a state-directed 1.9 percent salary cut by taking seven half-day unpaid furloughs during the school year that begins Sept. 7.

Students will be sent home early, buildings emptied and phone switchboards shut down.

It’s the third straight year of shared salary reductions: After a 4 percent cut for all employees in 2009-10, roughly 3 percent was restored last year, only to bring the additional 1.9 percent cut for the coming year.

• Students will lose some instruction time: Beyond those half-day furloughs, which meet minimum “instruction day” state standards, Battle Ground will keep students home during another three days of teacher training. That’s under a state waiver that allows the district to offer a total of 177 learning days, rather than the normal 180 days.

It’s the third year of a three-year window in which Battle Ground won authority to use the waiver, so it won’t be a cost-savings option next year, Bria said.

• Class sizes will grow: There will be about two students more per classroom, on average, across all schools, as the district pared 32 teacher positions. Not nearly that many layoffs were required, thanks to attrition and churn (retirements, leave requests), Lynn said. At least 12 positions correspond directly to elimination of state funded supplements for grades K-4 classrooms, lopped by deficit-plugging legislators.

• Lower enrollment is a factor: Lynn conservatively estimates 12,400 full-time equivalent students this school year, down 366 from last year’s actual count (which missed the budgeted 13,055 FTE target for 2010-11).

Lynn said there’s a smaller incoming class for kindergarten and most other grade levels, as Clark County’s lagging economy continues to depress home sales and new arrivals, at least in the Battle Ground district.

The news isn’t all bad.

This is the first calendar year of a three-year replacement maintenance and operations property tax levy (approved by voters in February 2010) that will collect $20.5 million in 2011, significantly more than last year’s $13.7 million.

That helps offset the $1.4 million hit of lower teacher salary money from Olympia; the $4.5 million impact of expired federal stimulus help; $1.2 million reduction in state payments for grades K-3 classrooms; and a $665,000 reduction in alternative education state funding for CAM Junior-Senior High School and the HomeLink hybrid homeschool programs.

Lynn did carve out $500,000 to boost Battle Ground’s chronically ice-thin reserve fund, thus meeting a critical school board goal (and helping preserve the district’s recently reviewed bond credit rating, she noted).

The estimated year-end fund balance next June 30 would be about $1.75 million, including $1 million in unreserved funds.

Many more such investments are needed to meet the board’s long-term objective of a 3 percent end balance (about $3.6 million, per this year’s budget).

The school board will hold a second public hearing before it gives the budget plan final blessing, when it meets at 3 p.m. Monday, Aug. 29, in the Center for Agriculture, Science and Environmental Education “A” district board room, 11104 N.E. 149th St. in Brush Prairie.