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Enrollment Drops Bring Money Woes For Local Schools

Less kids means $75,000 deficit

A lower-than-anticipated kindergarten enrollment for the 2003-04 school year has put a $75,000 dent in the White Salmon Valley School District's $10,174,000 preliminary budget.

When the final budget comes up for adoption July 17, however, Superintendent Dale Palmer said the necessary repairs will have been made to balance the spending plan with anticipated revenues.

"It's too late to make any major changes," he explained. "But there are still a lot of little things we can do and are doing" to balance the budget.

The shortfall occurred because kindergarten registrations fell far short of expectations.

Only 60 children have been enrolled in kindergarten for the coming year and the district was counting on 90 enrollees.

The loss of 15 full-time equivalent (FTE) students -- (kindergarteners are counted as 0.5 FTEs -- means the district won't receive $75,000 ($5,000 per student) in state basic education aid.

Moreover, the decline in enrollment hits at a time when the district finds itself with at least four too many teachers.

"Enrollment drives the almighty dollar from the state, and right now we have a shrinking enrollment that we weren't counting on and too much staffing," Palmer noted. "So now we have to do something to get our staffing in line with our enrollment."

The obvious response -- lay off the excess teachers -- is unavailable, he continued, because, under state law, teachers with signed contracts can't be terminated after May 15.

Palmer solved part of the dilemma, however, when a Whitson Elementary School teacher decided to take a leave of absence during the next school year.

That teaching position will be covered by moving another teacher from Henkle Middle School to the elementary. Henkle then will have only .3 FTE surplus.

At Columbia High School, the influx of a large freshman class will leave CHS overstaffed by .9 FTEs next year.

According to Palmer, the district will be able to cover 3.75 of its surplus teaching FTEs with Initiative 728, class-size reduction money, which also comes from the state.

"Thank goodness for I-728. Without that money, five teachers would have been laid off," he said.

The rest of the difference between expenses and revenues will be made up by reducing operations and maintenance budgets, shifting around other state and federal education aid, doubling user fees at the middle and high schools, and drawing on the district's reserve fund again.

A downward spiral

Every school district in Klickitat County and the Columbia River Gorge is dealing with dwindling enrollment, according to White Salmon's superintendent of schools.

"I think the economic downturn taking place in the county is what's driving enrollments down. There just aren't enough jobs for everybody," Palmer said. "So, people are leaving the area in search of work and taking their kids out of our schools."

In 2002-03, White Salmon Valley School District had an average daily census of 1,216 students.

The 2003-04 preliminary budget put together by district staff projected an enrollment of 1,200.

But given the reduction in kindergarten registrations, Palmer said the revised budget probably will be based on an enrollment of 1,185 students.

Starting next year, the district will have just four grade levels with 100 or more students. Three of those classes will be in the high school. The other will be at the middle school.

The largest class at the elementary school -- 96 -- will be in the third grade.

"Our crystal-ball projections for 2004-05 are telling us we'll be down 20 students at the high school, 30 at the middle school and 30 at the elementary school," Palmer said.

The drop in enrollment probably will cost four teachers and some classified staff members their jobs.

"The cuts are coming," noted Palmer, "because we cannot afford to be overstaffed (based on the state funding formula) anymore."

Everything's on the table

During the coming year, district administrators will be taking a hard look at every expenditure.

The cost/benefit analysis will encompass everything from the second afternoon bus run for Whitson Elementary School students, to the four-period day at the middle and high schools, to the use of district athletic facilities by community organizations.

The district charges nothing for the use of its fields and gyms. Costs of mowing, watering and providing power and lights currently are absorbed by the district's budget.

That could change starting in the fall.

"The school board has directed staff to start looking at charging for the use of district athletic facilities," Palmer explained. "We can't do it all ourselves. We could when our enrollment was up, but not anymore."

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