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Schools weigh budget options

May 29, 2002|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

In an effort to eliminate a $1.3 million budget shortfall, the Washington County Board of Education is considering cutting up to 20 teaching positions and more than 50 instructional assistant jobs, delaying salary increases and eliminating sports that don't make a profit, including baseball and track and field.

The School Board met Tuesday morning to discuss the possible reductions to the proposed $132.8 million general fund budget for fiscal year 2003.

Last week, the School Board eliminated two principal jobs and consolidated four central office administrative positions.

"We said there would be no sacred cows in this analysis," Interim Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan said.

The School Board has said the cuts are necessary because it did not receive the full $5.78 million increase it sought from the Washington County Board of Commissioners for next year's budget.

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The county has said it will contribute about $2 million of the $5.78 million request and the state will contribute about $2.4 million, leaving the board $1.3 million short.

School Board member Roxanne Ober said if it decides to cut teaching jobs, the board first would cut specialty teaching positions, such as Quest, art and reading.

She said four of the 16 Quest teaching jobs might be cut, and the school system would split the remaining 12 throughout the school system's 25 elementary schools. Quest is a program put in place this school year for high-achieving students.

The School Board also might delay salary increases, which make up $3.9 million in the proposed budget.

The board is in the process of negotiating salary increases for teachers and administrators for next year. Support employees, however, are in the middle of a two-year contract and are guaranteed 3 percent raises, school officials said.

Support employees include secretaries, instructional assistants and custodians.

Morgan said the board would have to renegotiate with the support staff union, Educational Support Staff Local I, in order to put the increases on hold.

"It would have to be a very dire circumstance to go back on our commitment," Morgan said. "I'd be very uncomfortable with that."

Ober said the board also is considering delaying salary increases for teachers and administrators only to make good on the support staff contract.

"Are the county commissioners cutting their budget this bare?" School Board member J. Herbert Hardin asked at the meeting.

County Commission President Gregory I. Snook said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon that the answer is 'yes.'

He said the commissioners cut funding for all other county groups by 3 percent last fall, including the Washington County Sheriff's Department and nonprofit organizations.

"The School Board is the only one that didn't get a cut," Snook said.

He said funding history shows the county has been a big supporter of the school system.

The commissioners fund 55 percent of the School Board's budget, while 45 percent comes from the state. The county has committed to giving the School Board $70.1 million, $1.8 million over last year's contribution of $68.3 million.

"If this board (of commissioners) has a reputation of being anti-education, I'd hate to see a really tight-fisted board," Commissioner John Schnebly said. "They might all be strung up in the square."

Schnebly said the recent national economic downturn had an effect locally, bringing in lower-than-normal revenues for the county.

The county had about $3.4 million in new revenue to distribute among all county-funded entities for the next fiscal year.

He said the School Board will have to make do with the money it is receiving.

"They got to do what they got to do," Schnebly said. "If that reflects badly on us, so be it."

The heads of the unions representing teachers and support staff said the possible cuts will be tough to swallow.

"Anything that's going to be done is going to affect service," said Claude Sasse, president of the Washington County Teachers Association. "We're just going to have to accept that."

Sasse said class size will increase if teaching jobs are eliminated.

"The county commissioners have put them (School Board) in a real bind," said Bonnie Parks, president of the support staff union.

Parks said she was worried that positions for instructional assistants who work one-on-one with special education students will be cut, disrupting the educational opportunities provided through the students' Individual Education Plan.

IEPs outline curriculum and instructional goals based on the individual level of each special education student's abilities.

Sasse said he's not convinced the commissioners can't contribute more money toward the budget, even if it's put toward new textbooks. He said some students are using textbooks that are severely outdated.

"That's actually a crime to have textbooks that old in the system," he said. "They certainly need to come forward and fund that."

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