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Pink slips for school employees

By ELIZABETH CIEPIELA

Staff writer

Due to a $6.4 million budget deficit, Federal Way Public Schools superintendent Tom Murphy has proposed a budget-balancing program which will cut into the music and gifted student programs, eliminate outdoor camp education, charge student-athletes to participate in sports, and eliminate 52 district employees –– including teachers.

Chuck Christensen, human resources director for the school district, said 85 percent of all the money spent by the district is personnel-related, so it is only logical to make up for the budget shortfall by cutting into district employee positions.

Each full-time teacher with benefits costs the district about $72,000, said Christensen. By eliminating and not replacing 52 teaching positions, the district can reduce the deficit by $3.7 million.

There will be a budget meeting with the School Board in late June and a budget hearing in July, with final adoption of the budget in August.

Despite this timeline, Christensen said teachers’ contracts stipulate that they be notified if they are laid-off for the next school year by May 15.

Two music teachers received their layoff notices on that date. “One woman was completely devastated. She broke out in tears,” Christensen said.

He said the music teachers loved music and enjoyed working with the kids. Christensen declined naming the teachers, saying the information is legally not in the public interest at this time.

The cuts in the music program mean that fifth-graders’ band and orchestra will be eliminated and music education will start in the sixth grade, instead. Music program supporters believe sixth grade is too late to start musical education.

But, Christensen said, the school district tried to reduce the number of necessary layoffs –– which it calls a RIF, or reduction in force –– by taking action early and creating an incentive program that asks teachers to retire early or resign. The program offered a $1,000 stipend for each employee who accepted the offer.

“We had 72 teachers respond to that invitation to not come back next year. We would have needed at least 52 of those 72 to have avoided a RIF of more than those two music teachers,” Christensen said.

In addition to the cut to the fifth-grade music program, the camp education program will be eliminated. The program, which is called Outdoor Experience, costs $170,000 to implement, said Christensen.

Students “go from their school to a camp environment for a week and learn a lot about nature and ecology and biology, in kind of a natural lab setting,” he explained.

Other measures to help balance the budget include cutting a portion of the GATE (Gifted and Talented Education Program) program, charging students a fee to be involved in school athletics, and RIFing other school district personnel, including secretaries and all 23 of the district’s library assistants.

Robyn Jackson was one of the library assistants who received a layoff notice yesterday. She said she was a little stunned.

“I didn’t think the layoffs would go so deep. I’m trying to figure out what the next step will be,” she said.

Jackson said the Legislature failed to pass funding this year, directly impacting the school district’s financial resources.

Getting rid of assistants will leave only one employee –– the librarian –– in libraries. The quality of education will suffer, said Jackson.

“I think that the school district could find other ways rather than to cut jobs,” she said.

Adding to the district’s woes is the steady reduction in student enrollment. Due to the current economy, said Christensen, “we’re projecting that we’re going to lose about 500 students next year.“

The district has an enrollment of approximately 22,000 students. Each of them are worth $4,700 in state funding, so the district will be losing $2.3 million.

“If (the district is) losing 500 kids, it stands to reason we need fewer teachers,” Christensen said, adding that choosing which teachers get laid off is “strictly on the basis of the seniority formula.”

Here’s how that formula works:

Teachers are awarded “points” for how well they meet specific requirements. They are awarded one point for each year they have taught in Washington as certified teachers. They are awarded three-fourths of a point for each year they have been certified teachers outside the state. Finally, they are awarded points if they hold advanced degrees, earning one point for a masters degree and one for a doctorate. Teachers with the least number of points lose. A young teacher fresh out of college has a strong possibility of getting RIFed, said Christensen.

The Washington Education Association, the state’s dominant professional union for public school employees, is concerned that the teacher layoffs will negatively affect the quality of students’ education. Less teachers and larger class sizes “means that students may not get the individualized attention they deserve. It has a very real impact on children,” said WEA spokesman Rich Wood.

Charlotte Kemble shares that concern. She is president of the Federal Way PTA Council, which oversees the 32 local PTA units in Federal Way.

Kemble said parents and members of the council aren’t happy about the lay-offs, “but there’s not a lot we can do about it other than call legislators and keep reminding them they promised small class sizes.”

In elementary school, 20 students is an acceptable class size, said Kemble. Twenty-five students per class is the preferred maximum for each junior high and high school class. Despite the necessity of personnel reductions and the resulting class-size problems, Kemble said the district has looked at the whole picture.

A lot of the PTA Council members were on the district budget committee, and “I honestly believe the school district has done the best it could do,” she said.

Staff writer Elizabeth Ciepiela: 925-5565, eciepiela@fedwaymirror.com

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