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Schools face uncertain financial future

"The budget for Oak Harbor School District for the 2001-2002 school year not only looks bleak, but it is still undetermined because the Legislature has yet to approve the state's final educational budget.With state education budget cuts appearing to be definite, Oak Harbor school officials are trying to devise their budget for next year based on what the Legislature could possibly adopt. The House and Senate have different budgets in the works, and both cut education spending on the state level, said Rick Schulte, superintendent of schools. The Senate budget, though, looks more favorable to state school districts in general, so that is the budget on which Oak Harbor School District is basing its current budget work, Schulte said.Declining enrollment and a delay in receiving federal impact aid are also factors presenting a challenge in the school district having all the money it needs. Schulte and other district representatives presented the district's budget work to date to school board members in a special meeting Monday night at the district offices. The task facing the board now is to identify areas where spending could be cut, under present cash flow expectations, to provide the most suitable school budget possible for next year.Out of the district's $40 million annual budget only $1.7 million, or less than 5 percent, is discretionary. Discretionery means those funds may be used wherever needed and can be transferred from one area to another. The remaining $38-plus million is in contingency funding, which means that it can only be used for specified programs and budget areas, Schulte said. The specifications on spending come from the sources of funding, whether they are federal, state or private funds.Declining enrollment is one reason for the loss of some funding. The district now has 200 less full-time enrolled students than it did last year, therefore state education funding based on enrollment will decrease, Schulte said.One area that is causing cash-flow problems is a possible delay in receiving federal Impact Aid payments. Impact Aid is paid to school districts in which the federal government owns property but does not pay property taxes, negatively affecting the amount of property tax collected and funneled to the school district. The federal government is the largest landowner in Oak Harbor, with Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, so it pays impact aid to the school district.The district learned it is going to receive its $700,000 impact aid payment later than expected. Originally expecting the payment this summer, Schulte recently learned that the payment may not come until next budget year.Good news may come in the form of a federal legislative amendment going before the U.S. House of Representatives today, said Charla Neuman, press secretarty for U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett.The U.S. House probably tomorrow will be voting on an educational bill, Neuman said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. Larsen attached an amendment to the bill, which will help fund impact aid, Neuman said.It's possible (impact aid) won't be held up ... We're not expecting a huge fight on this in the House, Neuman said.In a prepared statement to the U.S. House today, Larsen talked about the support the community of Oak Harbor gives to the U.S. government by supporting the Navy members and the mission at the naval air station.It is time for Congress to reciprocate and show that same type of support to the families of Oak Harbor, and thousands of others who rely so heavily on the Impact Aid program, Larsen said.Neuman said she will release details of today's session after it is completed.Rising utility costs are also wreaking havoc with the school district budget, Schulte said. Utilities and a list of other costs, such as insurance, building and library budgets, and auditor and attorney fees come from state revenue earmarked for Non-Employee Related Costs. The district is expecting to receive $2.85 million of state revenue for Non-Employee Related Costs, and utilities are already budgeted to consume $1 million of it. The rising cost of electricity could eat up another $400,000 of this fund, and Schulte said he heard that utility costs could actually double in January 2002.The district is still planning to add teachers for the upcoming school year, but present budget constraints may make it unable to add as many as the district had hoped.Schulte said the budget cuts will not affect areas of funding received from the levies passed by voters on March 13.We have to spend it on what we said we'd spend it on, Schulte said of the levy money.However, state cuts in Better School funding would put constraints on reducing class sizes and the hiring of as many teachers a the district had hoped.School board president Kathy Jones said she is concerned that Oak Harbor School District residents might view the need to cut the school budget.At the Monday meeting, Jones said the state budget cuts might damage public perception of what the school district must do with its money, for instance, not reducing class size as dramatically as it said it would.Said Jones: The public might say, 'We voted on it and they still didn't do what they said that they would do.' You can reach News-Times reporter Christine Smith at csmith@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611 "

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