Vancouver tweaks school budget plan

State, federal changes ease proposed cuts; teachers union wary

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

There were no cartwheels or high-fives. But the “final budget solutions” unveiled Tuesday by Vancouver Public Schools leaders were far less onerous than “worst-case” scenarios tossed around earlier this year.

On the Web:

Details, comments at the district's website.

Late changes in a two-year state budget finally adopted by legislators last week — chiefly, a 1.9 percent reduction in teacher salary payments, rather than a proposed 3 percent cut, plus an uptick in federal dollars — trimmed to $9.5 million the 2011-12 budget adjustments recommended by Superintendent Steven Webb.

That’s $1 million less than a $10.5 million belt-tightening plan unveiled in early May.

It’s also a far cry from the $16 million target given months ago to a special advisory panel.

Significantly, the plan still avoids any classroom teacher cuts. The Vancouver district was nearly alone in Clark County in not issuing reduction-in-force, or RIF, notices, in mid-May to many instructors whose jobs now hang on tough budget choices.

Webb and budget director Steve Olsen stuck mostly with the 4-week-old script for plugging the budget hole, which won’t come up for final school board approval until August.

The plan calls for $3.4 million in new revenue, putting actual spending reductions at $6.1 million. Those cuts represent 2.9 percent of the current-year, $213 million district budget.

Highlights

Highlights of the blueprint (with changes indicated):

• Reduce and consolidate school bus service by five or six routes, and widen 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: $250,000 (previous estimate, based on seven routes, $350,000).

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

Now operating in the former 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. Savings: $300,000.

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

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

• Trim district central office administration staffing by about 16 percent, the equivalent of 12.7 full-time employees (previously, 20 percent, and 16.2 FTE). Cuts to include teaching oversight; special services; personnel, budget, IT, maintenance and transportation services; and one Vancouver School District Foundation position.

Savings: $1.4 million (earlier $1.75 million).

• Eliminate three of four “instructional coaches” who help math teachers better reach students. Savings: $385,000 (previously all four coaches, $425,000).

• Across-the-board pay cuts: Olympia settled on a 1.9 percent reduction in state salary payments for teachers and classified, nonteaching workers. The district would impose the same on workers supported solely by local property tax dollars, but would reduce administrator salaries by 3 percent.

For school teachers on a state base-salary scale of $34,048 to $64,174, the annual loss would be $647 to $1,219.

Savings: $1.7 million (previously, based on 3 percent teacher reduction, $2.4 million).

Most revenue enhancements touted last month would remain.

The higher property tax school levy approved by voters last year will raise $1.9 million more. The district will pull $500,000 from reserves to avoid teacher layoffs (down from $1 million; the district will bank the remainder). A special education state “safety net” fund, profits from student meal service and higher school facility use fees would net another $1 million.

Not settled yet

There’s a bittersweet taste to the fine-tuning.

Vancouver could ease staff reductions and retain $500,000 in reserves largely because an expected loss of $1 million in federal Title 1 funds (linked to low-income students) won’t happen. For that, credit goes to Clark County’s high poverty rate, Olsen explained.

Tuesday’s brief meeting surely raised mixed emotions.

“It’s better news than what we had a few months ago, but it’s still not good news,” said school board member Mark Stoker.

Board President Edri Geiger noted that Vancouver had pressed state legislators hard, and successfully, to not reduce property tax levy equalization funds that help property-poor districts keep up with those in areas such as Seattle.

Now comes another lobbying task: Persuade teachers to accept the 1.9 percent pay cut — one that actually digs deeper than last month’s proposal.

Early bargaining has not been positive, said Ann Giles, Vancouver Education Association president. The district continues to tuck away extra reserves, at the expense of students and employees today, she said.

“I’m not confident we’re done” with a final budget plan, Giles said. “It would be safe to say we’re not impressed.”

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