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Schools facing budget crisis

Planned 2012-13 budget a 'sign of the times' for St. Helens
by: Katie Wilson, Columbia City School (above) is in the process of being closed. According to a budget message by Mark Davalos, St. Helens School District superintendent, the closure is estimated to save the district $130,000 in the first year with continuous savings of $160,000 for each year the school remains closed.

The St. Helens School District is trying to make the best of what its budget committee says is a bad situation.

District Superintendent Mark Davalos said the proposed 2012-13 budget, with its eight reduced work days for all school district staff, is 'a sign of the times.'

'It's nothing that we're proud of,' he added, speaking at a budget committee meeting on May 24.

The reductions will save the school $75,000 per day, according to budget documents.

The proposed budget forecasts a $1.58 million shortfall in the general fund due to decreased state school fund revenue and increased expenses, according to the budget message. To cover this, Davalos recommended tapping into reserve funds, implementing furlough days, using the savings from closing the Columbia City school, and reducing and reallocating staff hours.

In a statement Keith Meeuwsen, president of the St. Helens Education Association, said coming to terms on a new contract between the teachers and the school district 'took a lot of work and sacrifice.'

At the beginning of the year, the district was already facing a huge $2.6 million cut and as the year progressed, so did the financial cuts.

Ultimately, Meeuwsen said the teachers negotiated a deal that saves the district $500,000 by going to a lesser insurance policy or giving the option to opt out of insurance all together if a spouse has health insurance. The teachers also agreed to take a salary freeze.

'We as teachers have never done this before and it hurts a lot,' Meeuwsen wrote. 'Altogether the teachers came up with the $800,000 dollars that the school district was hoping to save when the district proposed to SHEA to take 10 furlough days to help balance the districts budget.'

According to Davalos, the school district has weathered many major budget reductions over the years and student numbers have also been declining. Now, teachers are shouldering a huge burden with approximately 33 students for every one teacher at the high school and 28 students for every one teacher for kindergarten through sixth grade.

'Teachers make up the 'lions' share of our budget,' Davalos wrote in the budget message. He said he tried to come up with a fair and balanced distribution of teachers throughout the schools, the problem of large class sizes in mind.

'Needless to say, the numbers will still be larger than desirable,' he said.

Larger classes mean students have less one-on-one time with teachers and that instructors must stretch precious resources even further.

A limited number of teachers also means fewer classes offered.

Columbia City School Choir Director Kevin Zmolek will still teach sixth grade choir even after the Columbia City facility closes, but, in the process, he has lost one teaching hour. The school district said the reduced time reflects student interest in choir, Zmolek said he was told. But he maintains that the decision to cut the hour was made before the district had any idea how many students would or wouldn't want to take choir.

For substitute teacher Kimberly Snook, this is a disservice to students.

'It falls short,' she said, after the budget committee meeting on May 24. 'It takes away from any skill level or interest.' It's important to start building a foundation at the younger grade levels, she said.

Another thing that has parents and teachers concerned are the eight furlough days. The district and the teachers union agreed to these days, but it would be a stretch to say that everyone is 'on board' with the decision, Davalos said. It wasn't something anyone was eager to do.

Jana Mann, budget committee manager, compared the school district budget planning to her own family's budget process. You can cut and cut and save and save, but 'sometimes there' s just a pinch and it's hard.'

The proposed budget still maintains a balance of educational services - from libraries and art programs to college credit courses and physical education. It's just a very delicate balance.

'Our fiscal outlook is fragile,' Davalos concluded in his

budget message. '...Thirty-six years in education does not allow me to deny the crisis we are facing.'

The proposed budget is 'people and substance poor,' he said. 'It may be the best this district may recommend but it is not what our students and community deserve.'

For more information, or to view the budget, go online to www.sthelens.k12.or.us, click on 'District Office' and go to 'Budget Information' under 'B'.

Get Involved

The next St. Helens School District Budget Committee meeting will be held Thursday, May 31 at 6:30 p.m. in the high school's Loo Wit Room.

Upcoming

Check out the June 6 Spotlight edition for a detailed look at the Scappoose School District's budget process.