Gambling on school money

Fewer people in Washington are gambling, and that’s bad news for schools, Coupeville parents learned Monday night.

The Coupeville School Board held a public hearing as part of their regular board meeting to get input on how they should spend I-728 funding. But first, Superintendent Bill Myhr painted a bleak picture of the squeeze being put on the funding by the state.

Initiative 728, passed in 2000, was designed to provide funds from state property taxes and the state lottery to improve schools by a combination of routes.

They include reducing class sizes, providing extended learning for students, providing additional training for teachers, early assistance for pre-kindergarten children, and improving school facilities directly related to class size reductions and extended learning opportunities.

Coupeville Schools Superintendent Bill Myhr said instead of being the hoped-for enhancement for school programs, the money is being used to patch large holes in their budget left by state cutbacks in basic education.

“We had big plans,” Myhr said of the money.

Coupeville planned on creating a full day kindergarten, improving math offerings, reducing class sizes by hiring more teachers and providing more staff training. Instead, it has used most of the last two year’s worth of I-728 funding for simply retaining the teachers currently on staff. This year three teachers were paid salaries out of the I-728 money.

The initiative dollars amount to a little over three percent of the district’s $7.2 million annual budget, which includes all revenues and expenses.

The district received $197,681 in the 2001-2002 school year, and $215,045 so far this year. They had budgeted based on an anticipated $230,612.

Myhr explained the money is dispensed throughout the school year, so districts never know how much they will actually receive. However, school district budgets have to be confirmed before the start of the school year. Funding from the initiative becomes a wild card, causing the schools to do some gambling of their own.

Myhr told the school board Monday that the district has received $16,500 less than expected, reducing the amount per student from $220 to $205.

The superintendent has learned a lesson in his first year at the district: Don’t plan on getting the full amount from I-728.

“We can’t depend on getting the full funding amount now,” he said, especially with the continuing downward trend in the economy.

For the coming school year the district will budget for I-728 funding more conservatively, based on what they received this year.

The summer school program will likely be a major casualty of the reduced funding.

“We really don’t know if we will have enough money for summer school,” Myhr said.

The loss of the summer school program would affect more than 100 middle and high school students, and 80 elementary students, who need the classes for remedial lessons or to catch up on credits. The district may have to consider a “hybrid” program in which parents are asked to pay part of the cost. Myhr is reluctant to do this, as it might leave out some students who couldn’t afford to pay.

Will Jones, who has been a vocal critic of the school’s WASL scores, proposed the board use the I-728 funding to improve scores on the state-mandated assessment test.

Jones said he recently sat in on a fourth grade math class, and was impressed with the quality of teaching.

“They’re the best you’re going to get,” he said of the teachers.

He sees quantity, not quality as one of the reasons for the low math scores of Coupeville students.

He suggested using some of the money to fund a full-time math instructor for the fourth grade, and reducing class sizes to around 22 students.

“The days of the one room school house are gone,” he said.

Myhr said he would also like to see the math scores improve, but thinks they can work on that without the I-728 money, which will already be spread pretty thin.

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