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Oak Harbor school budget adopted after much debate

After months of debate, the Oak Harbor School Board passed a $40.7 million 2003-2004 budget without fanfare Monday night.

There seemed little left to discuss as far as allocation of funds: what to cut, what to save, what goes and what stays.

Budget decisions were made easier last month when the federal government came through with a $617,000 Impact Aid payment for the 2002-2003 school year, effectively eliminating the anticipated $1 million budget gap.

With so many changes made to the budget through the numerous drafts proposed, Schools Superintendent Rick Schulte went back to a comparison between the final 2003-2004 budget proposal and the original 2002-2003 budget.

Significant changes included a $626,520 reduction in revenue due to an estimated enrollment decrease of 150 students, and the loss of $90,000 in I-728 funding for smaller class sizes.

On the plus side, the ‘03-’04 budget marks an increase of $164,000 due to a 40 full-time-equivalent student increase in the Home Connection homeschool program, and $850,000 in anticipated Impact Aid funding.

Expenditure changes include $152,349 in liability insurance, $150,000 for science textbooks and $110,000 for building and library budgets.

While the budget came out better than earlier anticipated, it was not perfect.

“It is important for the school board, staff and community to understand that there remain significant unmet needs in the district that a balanced budget, although fiscally responsible, will not address,” Schulte said in a memo to the board.

Schulte listed 23 items which were not addressed in the budget, but are still on the wish list.

They include adding six teachers to reduce class sizes at the kindergarten to fifth grade level, for $360,000; increasing supplemental certificated staff days from 8 to 10, for $1 million; improving the high school track and field for $1.5 million; and replacing the North Whidbey Middle School track for $500,000.

Schulte noted district expenditures per student will be $7,111, which is the first time it has exceeded $7,000 per student.

Student to staff ratios are slightly down district-wide, with the middle schools at their lowest level ever, and the high school at the lowest level since 1999.

One of the most optimistic notes in the budget was that the ending fund balance was estimated to be at 4.3 percent, or $1.75 million, which Schulte said is necessary to cushion against revenue uncertainties, such as Impact Aid revenue and enrollment predictions. In a worst case scenario, setting the fund balance too low could result in the district having to issue interest-bearing warrants to meet payroll. Schulte said that hasn’t happened here since the 1970s.

Schulte said revenue and expenditure forecasts can be 99.5 percent accurate and still produce an ending fund balance that is as much as $500,000 higher or lower than the planned fund balance.

“A lower than expected fund balance would be cause to restrict expenditures the following budget year in order to build the fund balance to its desired level,” Schulte noted.

While some school board members had asked about the possibility of using part of the fund balance to pay for capital projects, Schulte did not recommend that course of action.

“You have to balance the damage you do by keeping the fund balance high, with the damage you do by spending it down,” he told the board.

With this budget, Schulte hoped to reverse a four-year trend of decreasing the fund balance.

“There are many unmet needs in the district,” he said, “The fund balance is not the only one.”

Board member Kathy Jones said, “You always wish you could do more, but to move $500,000 into capital projects is irresponsible at this time.”

Schulte said if additional capital projects funds become available from other sources, the district has identified several priority projects. The top two are adding lockers in the currently lockerless locker rooms a the high school gym, and replacing the North Whidbey Middle School track.

Schulte noted the track replacement has been listed as the number one capital priority for the last two years.

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