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Warrenton Schools Stay On Top Of Budget Cuts

One year ago, on Feb. 14, the Warrenton-Hammond School District, facing potential insolvency in the next 18 months, announced that it would pursue about $865,000 in cuts over the next four years in staff, materials and days of school. It also announced a new five-year budgeting plan, becoming the only district in the county to budget that far out.

“The main impact is that it helps us understand the long-term impact on our carryover of our short-term decisions,” said Superintendent Mark Jeffery, who gave a small group gathered at Warrenton High School Monday night a progress report on the district’s survival plan.

The district, like others, is facing myriad financial challenges, including decreasing state funding, enrollment fluctuations and a sharp increase in pension, liability, insurance and other costs.

The cuts the district has made so far include three certified faculty positions, five classified staff positions, five school days last year and an additional five this year. In the next two years, the district will likely cut the equivalent of another staff and faculty member and ultimately take 12 days out of the school year in furloughs, staying at the minimum number of 990 instructional hours a year as required by the state.

The upside of all the cuts is that the district can say it’s in the black through the 2017-18 academic year. Jeffery added that many larger districts can only manage to budget 18 months ahead.

Warrenton started out this year with slightly more than $1.86 million in savings but is still running a budget deficit of $318,000. Based on its plan, by the end of the 2017-18 academic year, the district will have spent its savings down to about $85,000. Jeffery said it’s inevitable that the district use its savings as part of the plan to absorb costs.

He said the district is trading carryover – the amount of money on hand at the end of the school year – for time to make more changes in the district, compete for enrollment with others and see if the economy or legislative changes improve its fortunes.

Warrenton predicted a continued state increase in educational funding over the next five years, which it thinks will reach $6.5 billion in the 2017-18 academic year, in line with very slow economic growth. Overall, though, said Jeffery, he sees the economy scraping the bottom for the next six years while slowly improving.

Governor’s budget

The district attached its budget predictions to Gov. John Kitzhaber’s budget, which recently came out supporting $6.15 billion for kindergarten through 12th grade’s 2013-15 budget, a 7-percent increase from the previous biennium. The governor’s budget, though, also assumes no prison population growth over the next 10 years and a reduction in health care and other costs that can be redistributed to schools.

“There’s not going to be a lot of new money in the system,” said Jeffery, adding that it’s all about reallocation of existing funds.

The governor’s budget for education might actually be conservative, as other state lawmakers and educational advocates have asked for anywhere between $6.3 and $7 billion for K-12 funding. A big indicator of how much money schools will get the next biennium, said Jeffery, is the Joint Ways and Means Committee Co-Chairmens’ budget, expected to come out within the week.

Another issue the governor is tackling that will affect Warrenton greatly is the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS), which costs the district $835,000, or 10 percent of its budget, this year. Jeffery said the chances of the governor’s proposed limitations to cost-of-living adjustments standing up in court are slim and that a lot of the issue is simply waiting for the more expensive employees – part of PERS’ Tier 1 – to retire.

“The problem with PERS right now are the Tier 1 employees and the benefits they receive,” said Jeffery, adding that it’s become a joke that the best way to save a district money is by running over a Tier 1 employee – which Jeffery is himself – in the parking lot.

Principal Rich Glinert, who is taking over South Jetty High School, asked how much it would take to fully fund schools. Financial Manager Mike Moha said some predictions place full funding at $7.2 billion, $1 billion more than the governor’s proposing.

Chris Bridgens, who’s had three children go through the district, said increased property taxes would hurt people too much.

Jeffery said that people shouldn’t count on that kind of additional revenue coming through for education, whether through increased property taxes, a sales tax or other means.

“I might have to come and ask you for some money out of your wallets,” said Jeffery about possibly bringing up a bond measure if things don’t improve when the district’s savings run out.

Keeping kids is making money

“We’ve got to build our enrollment,” said Jeffery, adding that it’s the district’s biggest revenue source.

The goal was never to just make cuts, he added, which would incentivize students to leave the district for better programs elsewhere, especially with the relatively open enrollment policy of Clatsop County.

In the midst of employee and other cuts, Warrenton created a preschool program, hiring a director and an assistant. The program aimed to have 25 children this year, but is already at 27. Jeffery said that if it can get to 35 children, the program will be self-sustaining.

The district got a financial boost from a strong class of 2025. It started last year with 58 kindergarteners, said Jeffery, but the district experienced a near doubling this year, currently at 108 kindergarteners. He said it will take about three years to see whether the increase is a blip or a trend, although the district readily welcomes any new students. The district started subsidizing a full-day kindergarten program three years ago, as the state only funds the early education part-time.

The district also suspended its summer school program, said Jeffery, in order to afford upgrading technology in the classroom, including its new mobile computer labs being circulated through classes and providing hundreds of students at least an hour access per day.

“As we have less staff, we need to find ways to be more effective,” said Jeffery. “The technology helps out teachers do more with less.”

This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.

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