By SVERRE BAKKE
A fiscal storm is brewing on the horizon that, when it hits the White Salmon Valley School District in full force, will leave the district, particulary Columbia High School and Wayne M. Henkle Middle School, remarkably different.
Superintendent Dale Palmer last week gave district staff a full briefing on White Salmon Valley schools' latest financial forecast. The current best estimate predicts a loss of $100,000 to $150,000 in state levy equalization revenue in 2005-06 school year.
That's as a result of the increased assessed valuation of property in the school district -- the same property on which the district's bond and maintenance-and-operations levy rates are based.
According to Palmer, the district's assessed valuation has grown 33.3 percent in the past year, from $390 million to $520 million.
"We've gone from being a property-poor district to a not-so-property-poor district," Palmer notes.
The dramatic increase makes it less likely the district will continue to receive levy equalization money from the state, which redistributes state property tax collections (based on a complicated formula) from property-rich districts to property-poor districts with approved local levies, in order to create a kind of educational parity.
White Salmon Valley School District received $275,000 in levy equalization revenue in 2003-04 and balanced its $9.7 million 2004-05 budget counting on $257,000.
But the district already has lost $51,000 of that total because of changes in last year's assessed valuation and state formula. Budget cuts have been made to offset that loss.
If that weren't enough, Palmer thinks the district potentially could lose $203,000 in levy equalization funding next year because of continuing growth of its assessed valuation.
"The assessed valuation is not going to stay level. We will lose money next year," he says.
He adds: "This has the potential to be big. I'm guessing anywhere from $100,000 to $150,000, and it could go as high as $200,000. But I won't know until I see the new formula from the state. It could be nothing but it won't be nothing because the rest of the state's assessed valuation didn't go up 33 percent."
White Salmon officials are working through Vancouver-based Educational Service District 112 to push the state Department of Revenue to make its numbers available this spring, in time for the start of budget planning for the coming school year.
In anticipation of the revenue loss, Palmer and the district's five-member school board have begun planning actions the district will need to take to keep its finances in the black.
Palmer says the district probably will get by in 2005-06 without any cuts in teacher staffing because student enrollment should remain on par with the current year's.
However, starting in 2006-07 and running through 2008-09, Columbia High could lose 4.0 to 4.5 full-time equivalent (FTE) teaching positions by the end of 2008-09 as a consequence of declining enrollment.
CHS now has 20 FTEs paid for with state basic education funding, which is predicated on student enrollment.
Enrollment projections -- based on evidence collected over the past eight years -- suggest CHS's enrollment will actually increase by eight next year, then begin a three-year downward spiral starting in 2006-07.
"We've seen it happen at the elementary and middle schools, and now it's going to hit the high school," says Palmer, who anticipates CHS enrollment will drop from 419 to 336 over the next four years, by 17 in a 2006-07, 30 in 2007-8 and 36 in 2008-09.
What that means, says Palmer, is the district will have to let teachers go because of declining enrollment at CHS.
In that equation, less state funding equals fewer teachers equals an inability to operate the block schedule that was instituted at Columbia High 14 years ago.
"With the cuts in state funding I see coming, we can't afford to continue doing it," Palmer says.
And rather than wait a year until those funding cuts become reality, the school board has directed Palmer to proceed with a revamping of CHS's schedule, replacing the existing five-period, modified-block schedule, which features two semesters and a greater diversity of class offerings, with a six- or seven-period school day that offers yearlong courses of study and fewer electives.
"We could technically keep things status quo for another year, but we're going to have a new principal at CHS next year and do we want to saddle a new principal with the task of building a new schedule? I don't think so," Palmer says.
To get that process going, Palmer plans to bring in a consultant next month to help school administrators and faculty reach consensus on the next direction: a six-period schedule versus a seven-period schedule. Once that's been decided, development of the new schedule can go forward during March, April and May and be ready for implementation in 2005-06.
`Changes Are Coming'
That planning effort will proceed in conjunction with negotiations with the teachers' union regarding changed working conditions and in line with school board enactment of a new district policy that will lower CHS's graduation requirement of four years of social studies to three years and take effect in 2005-06. (The state mandates 2.5 years of upper-level social studies; that includes the semester of Washington State History taught in the eighth grade.)
Meanwhile, Palmer also is keeping an eye on a proposal being advanced by the state Higher Education Coordinating Board. That proposal would set a new minimum college entrance standard of four years of high school math. Public hearings are scheduled for the spring, with board action expected sometime this summer.
Bracing themselves for the outcome of that debate, Palmer, the school board and CHS administrators are working to get their ducks in a row.
"Changes in education are coming and we need to be ready by making sure our staffing fits the new mold," Palmer says.
Henkle Middle School, which currently operates on a four-period schedule, also will see changes in its educational programming; namely, it will have its school day readjusted as part of the coming proceedings.
"If CHS isn't on a block schedule, should Henkle be on a block schedule?," Palmer wonders.
Teacher staffing at Henkle would remain constant, however, because student enrollment projections for the next four school years point to a negligible change in numbers. Whitson Elementary teacher staffing also figures to stay static in the coming years.
Needs Going Unmet
Currently, Henkle has 1.0 FTE and Columbia High has 0.5 FTE teaching positions paid for with tax dollars collected under the local two-year, $1.4 million levy that expires at the end of 2006.
It has been suggested the school board keep those positions on the next M&O levy request in 2006 or use a portion of its $300,000 reserve.
School officials, however, are dubious about doing either of those things.
"We could dip into our reserves but that's not a long-term solution or a fiscally prudent thing to do," Palmer says.
The levy route is just as fraught with risk. The amount of money the district has requested for local M&O support has increased by 18 percent during the last two levy elections.
Nonetheless, Palmer says, the school board might have to ask voters for an increase for the next two-year cycle, but that the request won't include money for teachers.
"If we increase the levy, it's going to be because we need to replace the levy equalization money we've lost, to put a new roof on Henkle Middle School and to cover the cost of maintaining the Park Center," Palmer explains.
The cost of reroofing the older section of Henkle is an estimated $200,000. Last winter, because of the heavier than normal snowfall, the roof leaked; maintenance personnel had to put buckets in the hallways to collect the drips.
And when Klickitat County's new Pioneer Center on East Avenue opens sometime later this year, the current lease holder, the city of White Salmon, plans to hand the keys to the Park Center back to its owner, the White Salmon Valley School District.
"And we'll get to maintain it because it's ours and it's our duty to do so," Palmer notes.
City expenditures have averaged approximately $65,000 a year on Park Center upkeep -- expenses which are offset in part by rental income.
But most of the building's tenants -- including West District Court and the Klickitat County Health Department -- will be moving into the Pioneer Center.
The Bingen-White Salmon Police Department also plans to relocate to new headquarters, leaving only the Underwood Conservation District as a renter.
Palmer says the school district doesn't want to be a long-term landlord, that the school board will have to address the question of whether the Park Center and its surrounding grounds fit into the district's future plans.
"The obvious answer is No, but there's a lot of work to be done before we get there," he continues. "All I know right now is that it's just one of several dark clouds hanging over us and we'll have to deal with it."