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School district bracing for tighter budget

Anticipating fewer students, less money in coming year
With a recession looming, the Crook County School District is attempting to maintain the current levels of service to students in the upcoming fiscal year.
   That was the key item that came from Crook County School District Superintendent Steve Swisher's budget message for 2008-2009 to the budget committee Monday night.
   "This budget keeps us alive another year," Swisher told the committee.
   "While the economic forecast for Oregon and the United States in general is more foreboding than a year ago, we are proposing a budget in an effort to maintain the current level of instructional services by the Crook County School District, with minimal impact to support services and protection of the sustainability of all programs," Swisher wrote. "Growth in our student population is slower than anticipated in 2006 and somewhat inconsistent. Unemployment in Crook County is 9.5 percent due to the loss of jobs in construction and the timber industry. New housing developments have been suspended and destination resort sales are stagnant."
   "And so you don't have to go far to IronHorse or others out here to see how fast homes are selling or not selling," Swisher told the committee.
   "The corporate offices of Les Schwab are also moving out of the area, further contributing to a sense of economic loss to the community," Swisher wrote.
   Proposed revenues are $28.30 million for the 2008-2009 school year, compared with $28.72 million for the current academic year.
   "The total budget number is still undecided, as a couple of revenue funds are not clear yet, but will be clearer before the end of the process and we should have that number within a couple of weeks," Swisher wrote in an e-mail.
   The proposed budget for 2008-2009 is $423,171 less than the current year's, and there are two key reasons for that drop.
   One is the loss of county and school timber payments from the federal government.
   A second factor is the drop in enrollment.
   The district also receives money per student, but Swisher said the enrollment has dropped, and there are now more than 30 students who have left the district.
   Swisher emphasized that the issues are not unique to Crook County.
   "Right now, Bend-La Pine is running 600 students below (their projection)," the superintendent said.
   For Jefferson County's school district, a state prison did not open on time and the projected higher enrollment of students did not occur. Additionally, the number of students in the Redmond School District has dropped.
   "Do we have a sense of where they are going?" asked budget committee and board member Riley Stock of the children.
   Swisher said one reason is that some building contractors are leaving the area, moving to other areas of the country where there is much more building growth, such as in Nevada.
   Despite the economic challenges facing the district, the state and nation, Swisher pointed to several key academic gains. For example, the Crook County High School dropout rate has been slashed from 9.8 percent to 2.5 percent during a three-year period. Additionally, the district is implementing ACT testing for ninth through 11th grade, as another example.
   Both revenue and expenses were touched on in Swisher's message.
   "The state estimate for local property taxes in 2008-2009 is roughly equivalent to the current year, in contrast to a growth in assessed value of 14 percent in 2006," the superintendent said. He said this is a measure of the local economic conditions and that this change will be compensated to the district directly by a modification in the formula for state school funds.
   Under expenses, a key item will be building maintenance, as Swisher pointed out.
   "Senate Bill 1036 adopted by the 2007 Legislature allows school districts to impose a tax on all new development to fund capital improvements and reconstruction projects," Swisher said. "This option is under consideration by our board at this time. If implemented, a supplemental budget will be prepared and proposed prior to imposing the tax. To fund only the most critical maintenance needs, this proposal includes a general fund transfer of $85,800."
   Swisher also said there will be some staff reductions in the proposed budget.
   The superintendent emphasized that these cuts are through attrition and "some movement of current staff will occur to fill critical needs at the schools."
   "So this budget has a fewer number of people in it," Swisher said. "Mainly through attrition. No layoffs. No bumping."
   Revenue
   The following are some of the revenue items for the Crook County School District in 2008-2009.
   * In federal forest fees, $712,212 was allocated to the Crook County School District in 2007-2008, under just one example of the revenue side. Although this sources of federal funding has been eliminated, the state school fund grant has been increased accordingly to backfill a majority of the loss of this offset.
   * Also, revenues from local property taxes are shrinking because of slower growth and development in the area as estimated by the Crook County assessor and the Oregon Department of Revenue.
   * Under Medicaid, the federal government has disqualified some services as being Medicaid eligible and this has resulted in an approximately $50,000 shortfall to the district's general fund. Extra Medicaid funding will be lost in a special revenue fund for Title 19 but carry-over of this fund will support programs currently paid for by this source for another year.
   * Additionally, as the federal budget tightens, resources available for special education are also affected. The allocation for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is intended to supplement general fund money allocated to special education as opposed to replacing that money.
   Expenses
   The following are some of the expense items facing the Crook County School District for 2008-2009.
    Aging buildings throughout the district are an expenditure. An assessment report prepared for the Citizens Facilities Review and Recommendations Committee lists more than $12 million in critical repairs needed throughout the district.
    The proposed budget also calls for the reduction of 4.13 district office and administrative or supervisor employees. From the teachers', 3.92 employees will be reduced.
    Both the certified and classified employee union groups are in negotiations, and Swisher said salaries and other benefits have been projected to be competitive with other salary and benefit packages in other central Oregon school districts.
    More classroom space will be necessary to meet the needs of the growing numbers of special education students. A modular building will be placed at Crook County High School and the Crooked River annex will be remodeled and converted to a classroom.
    Buses will be another cost. The transportation fleet was updated with the purchase of two new buses in 2007-2008 and three more buses will be purchased next year with money from the Qualified Zone Academy Bonds.
   After considerable discussion, the budget committee agreed to have its next meeting April 10, then another on April 16 and another on April 21. Maintenance department needs, and budgetary items from Cecil Sly, Powell Butte, Ochoco and Crooked River elementaries will be discussed on April 10 at 6:30 p.m. Central office budgetary functions will be reviewed on April 16. Special programs, Paulina Elementary, Crook County Middle School and Crook County High School will be discussed on April 21. New budget committee member Kendal Huestis suggested that committee members set aside 15 to 20 minutes at each meeting to discuss what they had discovered in terms of potential energy grants and then finish at the April 21 meeting. All budget committee meetings are open to the public.