News

School district may be short by $5 million

By MIKE HALLIDAY

The Mirror

Sally McLean isn’t sure which horse to put her bet on right now.

Unlike two years ago, when it was clear what Federal Way Public Schools was in for with its budget, the district’s finance chief says several factors are making it difficult to predict the budget for the 2005-06 school year.

The district could be looking at a budget gap of more than $5 million, a $1 million extra if no new programs are added, or something in between.

McLean, who expects to have a better idea by the end of next month, told the School Board recently that the district should expect a budget cut to be safe.

What’s making it difficult to know what will happen is that only one proposed budget is floating around Olympia –– former governor Gary Locke’s. In the Legislature, the House and Senate are expected to have their budgets out in March. Governor Christine Gregoire announced last week she won’t introduce her proposed budget until a state economic forecast report is released March 17.

“It’s a real schizophrenic message for me,” McLean said during a study session last week with the board.

When Locke was in office, the district knew his track record. Officials could expect his budget to be the highest proposal and the final budget to fall somewhere between the two legislative branches, superintendent Tom Murphy said.

But Locke is gone, and it’s not clear if his proposal is even being given credence now that he’s left office. Democrats have done a hat trick with control of both the Senate and House, along with Gregoire in the governor’s seat.

The district arrived at the $5.5 million gap based on bills proposed in Olympia. If they all are approved, it could be good for teachers, but not so for the distrct.

Initiative 732, which voters approved to give teachers regular pay increases, was put on hold for two years. That suspension ends this year. If the Legislature does allow it, the district could see its costs increase by about $500,000 to $2 million over two years as teachers are compensated for the money not paid them and current increases.

Healthcare costs for the district could also go up from $582 per employee per month to $663 –– more than $1 million in new costs.

And the state’s Select Committee on Pension Policies recently recommended increasing the contribution public employers make to employees’ retirement accounts. If that passes –– and the committee has a record of getting what it wants –– that could mean an additional $1.9 million to the district.

But there could also be good news for the district.

A bill in the House could bring the district about $2.5 million in revenue based on the percentage of students registered in the free and reduced-price lunch program. It will be all or nothing, according to McLean. The bill states if a district has 40 percent or more of its students on the free and reduced program it is eligible. But if a district is below that percentage, it gets nothing, which is the position Federal Way is in. Just under 40 percent of the district’s students are signed up. Officials are double-checking to make sure that all students who are eligible are signed on.

Two years ago, the district didn’t have to wonder about the budget. The $6.5 million shortfall was hard to ignore. Due to the state’s budget shrinking coupled with lower student enrollment, the district didn’t fill nearly 20 teaching positions that were vacated by retirements or staff leaving their jobs. A few teachers whose jobs weren’t in the 2003-04 budget were moved to other positions in the district.

The 2004-05 budget was better because enrollment improved and the state allowed the district to collect property tax at a one-time higher rate.

District officials aren’t saying more jobs could be cut for the 2005-06 school year, but there was discussion that some programs might lose funding depending on the state budget the Legislature approves. In some cases, programs like a fourth-grade reading program that has helped students improve their state assessment test scores could see less funding, Murphy said.

Staff writer Mike Halliday: 925-5565, mhalliday@fedwaymirror.com

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