The cuts are coming. The only questions are where and how deep.
Whether or not the Sequim school board makes radical changes to Superintendent Bill Bentley’s proposal, board members plan to give a glimpse this week into what $1.8 million in cuts might do to what school officials call an already lean school program.
The board meets Thursday evening, a full week after a public meeting with community members and staff, to talk about shaping impending district cutbacks forced by a state budget shortfall of more than $8 billion.
Earlier this year, Bentley and a financial task force drafted a list of cuts that would reduce staff by more than 30 employees,
of new curriculum and technology, create a pay-to-play program for athletics, reduce spending for supplies and transportation, and make other cutbacks.
On April 16, school board members got suggestions from community members. Despite the sparsely attended meeting – about 50 in all, many of whom were district staffers or administrators – board president Sarah Bedinger said she saw concern and earnest efforts from the community.
"The folks who did come spent more time than they expected to spend there," Bedinger said.
"I was happy with that everyone took it seriously."
Bentley asked those attending to attempt to make the cuts themselves, providing a list of program areas and dollar figures. Most of the attendees stayed well past 9 p.m., two hours after the start.
Participants split into eight groups. Of those, Bedinger said four groups managed to complete all $1.8 million in cuts, two were close, and two others were far off.
Of the six groups that completed or nearly completed the exercise, Bedinger said the toughest item for them to cut was staffing.
"There was some disagreement whether to reduce a lot of classified staff or any teachers, but when you do the math … you can’t avoid it," she said.
Some school districts in the state are seeing employees – particularly administrators – take pay cuts to save district jobs. Bentley said that’s not out of the question in Sequim.
"I’ve met all year long with all our (employee) associations," he said. "At this point I think all the groups are in the listening and watching mode. I haven’t had anyone say absolutely not (to pay cuts).
What really needs to happen (is) … more certainty around the numbers and (to)know what exactly is going to be reduced. They need a little more information. I concur with that. I think when the timing is right we’ll explore that further."
Bentley added, "I think it’s fair to say that the most equitable approach is to see how much we can do across the board as opposed to looking at any one particular group."
The superintendent did mention that a school four-day week was off the table for this academic year – but not for next year.
"We don’t see that as something we can put in place for the coming school year (but) I think there are some possible savings there."
While school board members have until August to draft and complete a budget for the next academic year, they must approve reduction-in-force notices by May 15 to staffers whose positions are being eliminated.
Staff cuts hurt most
Among Bentley’s proposed cuts is reducing the certified teaching staff by nearly 10 full positions to save the district more than $550,000, including nearly three full-time teaching spots at Sequim Middle School.
Brian Jones, the school’s principal, said that clearly would have the biggest impact on students.
"When there are cuts … some of the newest hires have to leave, so there’s a real dislocation," Jones said.
Jones said that in the past four years under his tenure, all 12 staff members he’s hired have managed to stay at the school.
"And they’re keepers," Jones said. "We chose them and they chose us. They’re wired for middle school kids."
He said support staff at SMS is critical as well, likening employees such as librarians and counselors to figurative "table legs" to students’ success.
"It’s certainly distressing to face these possible cuts," Jones said.
"What the superintendent presented was the worst-case scenario. We certainly hope we don’t get near that."
Caity Karapostoles, secretary at Sequim Middle School, called the cuts devastating.
"I applaud Superintendent Bentley for meeting with staff, parents and community groups on a regular basis to collect input and keep everyone informed," Karapostoles wrote in an e-mail.
"Being included in the discussions concerning the budget cuts has helped me understand the process and how difficult these decisions are for Mr. Bentley and the school board."
Dave Ditlefsen, Sequim High School’s athletic director, saw a pay-to-play program instituted in his tenure at the Federal Way Public School District.
Total numbers of participants dropped, he said. While team sports such as football and basketball remained strong, individual sports such as wrestling and track & field suffered.
"(Pay-to-play) is never anything that we want to impose on families," Ditlefsen said.
But the proposal before the school board sees $100,000 cut from the $400,000 district sports program, necessitating a $75-per-activity, per-student fee in 2009-2010.
"Sequim has held out longer than a lot of districts have," Ditlefsen said. "Hopefully these are temporary measures."
The proposal also eliminates junior varsity teams from middle school, plus C-teams – generally made up of freshmen – at the high school.
Sequim has five C-teams: football, volleyball, boys basketball, girls basketball and baseball, the last a team that eventually feeds into Ditlefsen’s own varsity baseball squad.
"Unfortunately those are team sports – that’s an opportunity for ninth graders to get immediate playing time," he said.
"It’s unfortunate (but) it’s not completely shock due to the financial situation we’re in. If it does indeed happen, we’ll come up with some creative to find ways to get kids the opportunity to compete."
Ditlefsen said individual coaches would be given freedom to determine how to incorporate large rosters, to make cuts or not.
Tech gets an
Among Bentley’s proposed cuts is a $280,000 line item of reducing spending on curriculum and technology upgrades by 50 percent.
Some help is coming from Stu Marcy’s high school computer class. Students in his A-Plus computer repair class are rebuilding 30 computers to be used in a high school lab, helping offset some of the cuts in technology.
In addition, Marcy gets some state funding through Sequim High’s career and technical education program that he said isn’t eliminated the state Legislature’s newest biennial budget drafts.
He said that the district can get by with current software and hardware for the near future, a prospect that might have been shortsighted a few years ago.
"It used to be, 10 years ago, the pace of change (in technology) was so fast that we could barely keep up with it," Marcy said. "It would seem that the pace has leveled out a bit."
For example, instead of upgrading to Microsoft Vista, district computers can use Windows XP software.
The only classes at Sequim High that need continual upgrades are high-end classes such as multimedia.
Marcy credits Richard Seiler, a technology assistant, for recycling district computers and Patra Boots, director of curriculum and technology, with finding used equipment for projects throughout the district.
"The Sequim School District has run its budget so lean compared to the rest of the state for so long that we’re accustomed to belt-tightening," Marcy said.
The computer teacher mused that when the recession is over, the district might want to ask for more from its community in a local levy election.
Marcy is a Sequim High graduate. Just as he made the change from student to teacher, he watched his hometown change from a farming town to a retirement community.
"We went from one sort of fiscal conservative group to another," Marcy joked this week.
"Our population demands high efficiency from their school."
Reach Michael Dashiell at email@example.com.