By SVERRE BAKKE
The elimination of at least five teaching positions next year is under consideration as the White Salmon Valley School District comes to terms with shrinking enrollment and the resulting decline in state revenue.
Superintendent Dale Palmer outlined the district's financial problems, and possible solutions, recently in a memorandum to district staff.
"The [school] board has directed me to look at all areas of spending within the district," Palmer wrote on Oct. 6. "This means that everything we do is on the table and needs to be heavily scrutinized."
Chief among the items being examined is staffing: certificated (teachers), classified and administrative.
Under a "reduction in force" plan being formulated by Palmer in concert with the district's three principals, Columbia High School and Wayne M. Henkle Middle School each would lose two teaching positions, and Hulan L. Whitson Elementary School would lose one in 2004-05.
Layoffs of classified and administrative staff -- possibly as early as this year -- as well as the lengthening of the Whitson school day; the elimination of Whitson's afternoon bus run; and altering the four-period day at CHS and HMS also are under consideration.
"We can't lay off certificated staff (teachers) at this point. They have contracts and we can't legally let them go until their contracts end (next June)," Palmer said in an interview last week. "So who does that leave? The people without contracts."
Palmer, who intends to discuss the proposed layoffs with the school board later this month during a work session, attributed the district's financial crisis to dwindling enrollment and overstaffing.
"We've had a massive decline in the number of kids enrolling in school the last several years without a corresponding decline in the number of teachers we're employing," he noted. "As a consequence, the district is going backward in its fund balance."
Why backward? The district has been forced to dip into its reserves to make up the difference between budgeted personnel expenses and the revenue the state provides for general education.
Two years ago, the district had a general fund balance of $753,000. A year later it had dropped to $527,000 -- an amount roughly equivalent to the school board's reserve target of five percent of the district's budget.
However, because of costs associated with overstaffing in 2002-03, White Salmon began the new school year with a general fund balance of $347,210. Its projected best-case, year-end balance is $221,000.
"The ending fund balance figure is based upon our enrollment staying static over the course of the year," Palmer wrote.
At the start of the 2003-04 school year in September, White Salmon's enrollment count stood at 1,178. Three more students have enrolled since.
Still, that 1,181 enrollment figure is 10 under what the district based its 2003-04 budget projections on, Palmer noted. The absence of those 10 students translates into a loss of roughly $43,000 in state revenue.
State funding is enrollment driven, Palmer explained. When a district's enrollment decreases, so does its state funding.
Enrollment statistics for the past 13 years suggest the district will lose as many as 21 students before the school year ends next June. If that happens, the district's reserve fund would take an even bigger hit, dipping to about $180,000.
"That is a totally unacceptable number and the rapid decline of this fund balance must be brought under control," Palmer stated in his memo to staff.
The best-case scenario for the district would be a huge influx of new students -- and an accompanying deposit of state revenue -- during the school year. However, the outlook for such a turnaround is grim.
White Salmon has four remaining grades (8, 9, 10, and 12) with 100 or more students.
By projecting next year's kindergarten enrollment and moving all current students ahead one year, Palmer estimated the district will start the 2004-05 school year with 1,140 students -- and, consequently, five fewer teachers.