Officials in Pierce County’s largest school districts are taking a deep, cleansing breath as they budget for the coming school year. For the first time in several years, they’ve been able to plan without looking over their shoulders for the next major state funding cut.
After the state Supreme Court ruled in January that the state must provide adequate funding for education by 2018, the 2012 Legislature took K-12 education cuts off the table.
“We’re hoping there’s enough stability so that the state doesn’t mess with the 2012-13 school year – so we don’t get any more surprises,” said Kristy Magyar, director of finance for the Clover Park School District in Lakewood.
At the very least, she said, “there are fingers in all the holes in the dam, and they’re not drilling any more holes.”
Tacoma Public Schools was also relieved by the change in fortunes.
“We went from thinking we were going to lose millions of dollars, to no reductions,” said Ron Hack, chief financial officer for the Tacoma district.
Tom Seigel, superintendent of the Bethel School District, points out that even though there are no new major hits this year, school districts are still feeling the shock of past cuts.
He estimates that his Spanaway-based district has lost a total of $64 million over the past 10 years.
Last year, the state cut funding for salaries by 1.9 percent for teachers and 3 percent for other school employees. Most school districts found a way to backfill the salary cuts from local funds, or asked teachers to give up some paid training days.
Also gone is state money that helped districts reduce elementary school class sizes. The state is now averaging school enrollment – which drives per-pupil funding – over a 10-month period instead of a nine-month stretch. That means districts must spread a relatively static amount of dollars over a bit more time.
Here’s a look at how 2012-13 budgets are shaping up in Pierce County’s four largest school districts.
Earlier this year, Tacoma polled more than 1,000 parents, community members, staff members and students who attended budget information sessions. They were asked to rank their priorities.
At the top of the list was keeping class sizes small. Other priorities included retaining school-based security officers at high schools and playground supervision for younger students.
The proposed budget reflects some of those priorities. It includes, for example, $365,000 for campus security and school resource officers at the high schools, along with $120,000 for noon-hour supervision and adult crossing guards.
The South Sound’s largest school district is projecting general fund budget expenditures of nearly $333 million in the coming school year.
More than half the expenditures, about 57 percent, will pay for teaching activities – teachers and aides, textbooks and supplies. Another 13.7 percent will fund what the district calls teaching support: libraries, counseling, health services, safety.
A total of 6.4 percent will go toward central administration, and another 6.5 percent for school-based administration, including principals, assistant principals and school office staff. Just more than 16 percent will pay for other supports, including transportation, maintenance and utilities.
The budget includes the equivalent of at least six job vacancies that will remain unfilled. It also relies less on spending from savings than last year’s budget. That figure has been reduced from about $10 million to an estimated $6 million.
The School Board is scheduled to hold a final public hearing and adopt the budget at its Aug. 23 meeting.
Student enrollment drives school budgets, because local districts receive the bulk of their state funding on a per-pupil basis. Tacoma’s enrollment for the coming year is projected at 28,522, virtually unchanged from last school year.
While the headcount in Tacoma schools has declined by more than 4,100 students from 2001, school officials believe the decline has bottomed out. Over the next eight years, the district expects to gain about 1,550 students.
A 2012-13 general fund budget of just over $196 million adopted by the school board in June includes almost $8 million in cuts.
District officials cited several factors behind the shortfall, including:
• An enrollment decline of 230 students in what had been a fast-growing district. Puyallup’s total headcount is now projected to be 19,529.
• Utility cost increases.
• Fallout from $2.8 million in state revenue reductions from the 2011 legislative session that were covered by district reserves during the school year that ended in June.
The budget includes layoffs for 14 bus drivers and 29 paraeducators, many of them part-time employees. But at a district job fair for paraeducators held last week, nine were rehired, said district spokesman Brian Fox.
The School Board is set to adopt a general fund 2012-13 budget of nearly $168 million on Aug. 14.
The district plans to spend about $1.2 million from its reserves.
A July report to the board by Chief Financial Officer Harvey Erickson said that the budget reflects an increase of about seven certificated staff, most of them in the growing Pierce County Skills Center. The skills center is a regional career and technical education school that Bethel operates in cooperation with six other school districts and local community and technical colleges.
Erickson said enrollment is growing at the skills center and in elementary schools, but has dropped at the high schools, primarily due to closure of the district’s online academy in a cost-saving measure.
Regular enrollment (not counting the skills center) in Bethel schools this year will be down from a peak of nearly 17,000 in the 2006-07 school year to about 16,600. The district expects about 415 students in the skills center, where a new wing opens this fall.
The budget also includes about 31 fewer nonteaching positions, primarily custodians and paraeducators. Bethel abandoned a previous proposal to cut middle school librarian staff to half-time.
The district has adopted a general fund budget of $144 million. Previous state cuts that carry over this year include about $1 million in state-funded salaries and $1.8 million in class size reduction funds.
The Lakewood-based district decided to keep salaries and class sizes intact, despite state cuts in those areas. It will use $1.4 million from reserves to balance the budget this year, and plans to use an additional estimated $1 million next year.
“We are trying very hard to keep cuts away from the classroom,” said Magyar, the finance director.
The district did cut an administrative position and make other reductions in central office staff to balance the budget this year.
Clover Park expects to have 11,418 students this year.
Looking forward, school officials will have their eye, as always, on developments at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. With about one-third of its students living on base and about 40 percent district-wide who are military dependents, family movements greatly affect district enrollment and firstname.lastname@example.org