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School proposal spreads the pain

The process of refining the Oak Harbor School District budget continued at Monday’s school board meeting, with possible cuts including the high school’s police officer and eight vacant elementary teaching positions.

Superintendent Rick Schulte submitted to the board a budget version that closes a $1 million gap between revenues and expenses, and includes a 3 to 5 percent general fund balance.

Schulte said this was a “healthy budget,” and he would be happy if it were adopted as is. He acknowledged, however, that it was not without its share of painful concessions.

“If spreading the pain is the goal, this budget should do it,” Schulte said. “I think everybody is going to feel the pain.”

Some of the points discussed in the final stages of trimming the 2003-04 budget were the fate of the high school “resource officer” position, leaving eight elementary teacher positions vacant and increasing non-profit rental rates.

Former board member John Dyer, who resigned this year, spoke in support of maintaining police Officer John Little in his positon as the full-time resource officer at the high school. Eliminating the position would save the district $38,000.

Dyer testified that Little had been instrumental in quelling neighborhood complaints about high school students, and he has a rapport with students that patrol officers can’t duplicate.

“We’ll do what we can, but it’ll be a big difference,” Dyer said. “Students talk to him where patrol doesn’t have the opportunity to.”

Board President Vicki Harring has spoken previously in favor of retaining the officer, saying his presence was invaluable in keeping down incidents at the high school, and that Officer Little participated in 18 drug busts at the high school this past year.

Dyer also expressed concern that if the joint city-school position was eliminated it would be very hard to reinstate.

Schulte said the cut was one suggested by the bond committee, but they could keep looking at alternatives.

Another option in the quest to fill the $1 million budget hole is to not fill eight elementary teaching positions left vacant by resignations, for a savings of $413,000. While this thwarts the smaller class size goal of Initiative 728, Schulte said it would only increase class size by one or two students per room.

“The intention of I-728 has been undermined by legislative actions,” Schulte said. “The money is being used for supplanting rather than supplementing education. It’s a significant reduction compared to what the voters and authors of 728 expected.”

Balancing a budget is not all about cuts, as Schulte demonstrated with a recommendation to increase student non-profit group rental of school facilities from the current $5 to $100 per team. With eight organizations using 17 school gyms, this is an increase from $85 a year to $1,700.

He noted this fee increase ties in with the proposed increase for school athletic fees to $50 per year at the middle school level and to $100 at the high school. But it’s not set in stone either.

“One hundred dollars is no magic number,” Schulte said.

The board balked at hiking fees that much in one year, and proposed instead a two step, $50 per year increase.

“It just seems like a huge jump in one bite,” board member Kathy Chalfant said.

Groups who would be affected are Oak Harbor Cats Girls Basketball, Oak Harbor Youth Basketball, North Whidbey Basketball Association, North Whidbey Little League, Oak Harbor Youth Cheer, King of the Rock Wrestling, Daisy Girl Scouts and Big Brothers Big Sisters. North Whidbey Basketball would feel the increase the most, with an increase in fees paid from the current $35 to $700.

The board suggested sending letters to these groups notifying them of the potential increase.

There’s still a long summer ahead for the budget formulators. The district will hold public hearings on the budget at the Aug. 11 and Aug. 25 school board meetings, with final adoption planned for the Aug. 25 meeting.

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at mmiller@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611

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