Vancouver schools officials identify $8.1M in cuts

Budget blueprint also includes $4M in new revenue

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer

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Vancouver Public Schools officials still don’t know the size of the district’s 2011-12 operating budget: State legislators stumbling over a two-year budget deal have kept them guessing.

But district leaders on Tuesday unveiled a blueprint of cost reductions, matched with new revenue, to plug a “worst-case” budget gap of $10.5 million while sheltering students from classroom teacher reductions and major learning impacts.

Schoolteachers and other employees could face salary cuts of nearly 2 percent, however.

The rollout came during a school board work session held in the Eleanor Roosevelt Elementary School cafeteria, with several dozen school employees quietly looking on. No comment or testimony was allowed.

About $8.1 million in spending cuts identified would represent almost a 4 percent reduction from the current school year budget of $213 million, down 0.3 percent from 2009-10 spending.

Using recommendations of a citizens advisory budget panel and school employee, parent and other community member input, Superintendent Steve Webb and budget manager Steve Olsen suggested changes that would affect each employee and sharply alter some programs.

Among the highlights:

• Reduce and consolidate school bus service by seven routes, and expand student walking zones around Hough, Sacajawea and Eleanor Roosevelt elementary schools where safe passage has been identified. The “walking school bus” program used at Washington Elementary could serve as a model. Savings for 2011-12: $350,000.

• Close the Vancouver Early Childhood Center (VECC) and relocate about six classrooms of young pupils, plus another six Head Start program classes and a clinic, to other VPS elementary schools. Savings: $300,000.

Now operating in the Lieser Elementary School, VECC serves preschool-age students with developmental delays.

• Reshape the “business model” at both the Propstra Pool and the Jim Parsley Community Center. The public pool at the Parsley center would stay open only Fridays through Sundays, when customers are sufficient to cover costs. Savings: $300,000.

• Terminate the GEAR UP program that promotes college readiness and study skills at Vancouver middle schools. (There’s an outside chance new grant funds could keep the program afloat). Savings: $249,000.

• Eliminate four “instructional coaches” who have helped math teachers better reach students. Savings: $425,000.

• Trim district central office administration staffing by 20 percent, the equivalent of 16.2 full-time employees. Cuts would fall on teaching oversight; special services; personnel, budget, IT, maintenance and transportation services; and one Vancouver School District Foundation position. Savings: $1.75 million.

• Across-the-board pay cuts: Should the state Senate’s proposal to cut by 3 percent funding for most classroom teachers, administrators and classified workers end up in the two-year state budget, Vancouver would also impose salary reductions on all other employees not directly funded by state dollars.

Bottom line would be a shared, equal pay reduction of about 1.8 percent. Savings: $3.9 million.

For schoolteachers on a state base salary scale of $34,048 to $64,174, the annual loss would be $613 to $1,155.

• Suspend for one year the $875 stipend teachers get to pay for post-graduate classes and other professional development training. Savings: $875,000.

On the plus side, Webb and Olsen listed five revenue sources to make an additional $4 million available for 2011-12.

The higher property tax school levy approved by voters last year will bring in $1.9 million more. The district would pull $1 million from reserves to save teacher positions. A special education “safety net” fund from Olympia, ongoing profits from student meal service and higher school facility use fees would net another $1.1 million.

All told, Tuesday’s blueprint would make $12.1 million available for deficit-plugging.

That’s $1.6 million more than the $10.5 million spending gap if the current Senate plan is adopted, so school board members have some flexibility in coming days to ratchet down cuts. The House-approved budget plan, without the 3-percent salary cut, would leave Vancouver $9.4 million short.

Webb and the school board had anticipated a May 10 public hearing and final vote on a district budget plan, but that seems highly unlikely as the Olympia waiting game drags on.

Yet, a potential state budget hit of $10.5 million is a brighter prospect than the $16 million in cuts feared just a few months ago. And district leaders drew school board kudos for sparing students from larger, direct impacts.

“In my mind, it’s almost the work of a sorcerer, to get that done,” board member Mark Stoker said.

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or howard.buck@columbian.com.