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home : education : schools May 25, 2016

3/4/2014 4:20:00 PM
Schools may move to four-day week
School district faces bleak budget picture
The Sisters School District (SSD) is facing a 2014-15 budget crunch that reflects a perfect storm of converging shortfalls and burdens.

The 2013-14 budget is $11.2 million which actually stabilized from precipitously declining years in the heart of the recession, when the district was cutting days and personnel. But, in part because the district has already cut repeatedly for years, next year is looking pretty dire.

Superintendent Jim Golden estimates a shortfall of about $800,000 if the district has an appropriate contingency fund. He could perhaps reduce it to $600,000, but that would leave a stripped contingency fund.

"I knew we would have trouble this year," Golden told The Nugget. "But I was hoping that we'd get more from the state."

Golden was looking for about $500,000 out of the state education budget that came from the Oregon legislature's "grand bargain." Instead, Sisters will see about half that. The district now enrolls approximately 1,138 students, down from a 2006 peak of 1,353. Since the state funds schools on a per-student basis, lower enrollment means declining funding.

"If I had 105 more kids, we'd have a balanced budget," Golden said. "The good news is that, for the first time since I've been here (four years), we've stabilized enrollment."

The district also faces mandated step increases to salaries and carries financial burdens from past decisions.

The district must pay out $267,000 on full faith & credit (FF&C) obligations it took on for elementary school repairs in 2007. SSD will carry that burden for another six years.

The district also owes the Oregon Department of Education $125,000 to continue to pay back the approximately $1.2 million it owes ODE for a disallowed homeschool program at Sonrise Christian School (now Sisters Christian Academy). That burden will carry on for three more years.

As budgets have shrunk, payments on those debts have loomed larger and larger in proportion.

And, though voters approved what should be $1.2 million in local-option funding, property tax compression means that that number will come up short by about $385,000. (When taxes exceed a legal limit of $5 per $1,000 of real market value, they are reduced or "compressed" until they are under that limit. Local option taxes are compressed first. Compression reflects the recessionary decline in real market values).

Golden is proposing a couple of courses of action to cope with the current crisis and stabilize the financial situation. One is to go to a four-day school week (see related story, page 1), which would make up a large proportion of the shortfall by cutting transportation cost and one day of labor costs per week for hourly employees, like secretaries and custodians. Teachers would continue to work a five-day week.

Golden is cognizant that the classified staff would bear the burden of this change.

"There's no joy in that part of it," he said.

The second course is to ask Sisters Country voters to approve a bond.

"I'm going to encourage the (school) board to go out for a November bond," Golden said.

That bond would be used to upgrade technology; fund repairs and improve facilities; and upgrade at the high school to improve energy efficiency. A bond could also consolidate the FF&C debt and relieve the burden on the general fund. The bond would also include a maintenance reserve, which would relieve pressure on the general fund.

Golden told The Nugget he estimates the bond amount at about $8 million.

"I would want to be in the 40 cents per $1,000 (assessed valuation) range," he said.

That translates to about $120 per year on a property valued at $300,000.

The alternative to the four-day week, Golden says, is an extensive layoff: 14 people. That would raise class sizes and force program cuts.

Golden notes that cutting programs Sisters values, but which are not part of "core" academics isn't as straightforward as it might seem.

"If you want to shoot at programs, getting rid of the Americana Project, getting rid of Chinese, doesn't save you any money, because they are all grant-funded," Golden said.

And, those unique educational opportunities are part of what attract families to Sisters. Cutting them could actually reduce enrollment and make financial problems even worse.

"What you don't want to do is gut what makes Sisters special," Golden said.

Trying to find a way forward has not been easy, Golden acknowledged. He believes the plan he is offering is the best way to deal with a crisis situation and an array of bad and worse options to choose from.

"This is where you wake up at 1 a.m.," he said. "Am I missing something? Is there another path?

"I don't think so."

By Jim Cornelius
News Editor

Facing another severe budget crisis next year, Sisters Schools Superintendent Jim Golden is offering what will surely seem to some a radical solution: Take Sisters schools to a four-day week in 2014-15.

The alternative way to climb out of an approximately $800,000 budget hole is to lay off 12 to 14 people and cut programs.

Moving to a four-day week would cover approximately $500,000 of the shortfall; the remaining shortfall would have to be made up through reductions in contingency funds, possible passage of a bond, or some layoffs.

The school board will host a workshop on Wednesday, March 12, 6 p.m. at the Sisters High School Lecture Drama Room to discuss the proposal.

The savings from a four-day week come from cutting transportation costs and one day of labor per week for hourly employees, like secretaries, paraprofessionals and custodians. Teachers would continue to work a five-day week.

Instruction time would increase, as the district would move to 70-minute periods and a longer school day.

Golden said that research on the impact of four-day school weeks has shown that academic quality is either unaffected or actually improves. That is in part because the extra day per week without classroom duties allows teachers to develop and improve their product.

"Teachers would have dramatically more time to prepare lessons, to do data, to come up with interventions for kids," Golden said.

Other districts in Oregon have gone to a four-day week as a means of coping with recession-era cuts. Golden cited Central Point and North Wasco as examples of districts that did so as a temporary expedient. Corbett, a small Portland-area district that is comparable in some ways to Sisters, has long been on a four-day schedule.

"In general, most people went to the four-day week to save money," Golden said. "A lot of people really like it, though."

Research indicates that absenteeism among both students and teachers is reduced and that morale and discipline improve. Golden says the plan could save as much as $50,000 in substitute teacher costs, as teachers who must take personal days for doctor's appointments and the like could do that on a non-instruction Friday.

The schedule would also reduce the disruption of athletics on the classroom.

Golden acknowledges downsides to the four-day week. It leaves kids unsupervised for a day and impacts working families disproportionately. He said the district will likely work with Sisters Park & Recreation District to provide alternatives for families who need their kids to be somewhere safe, supervised and enriching on the day they would normally be in school.

"We'll probably partner with SPRD to offer something for families on Fridays, but I know this is going to be hard on some families," Golden said.

It will also be hard on the district's classified staff, which in many cases will be taking a 20 percent hit to their income.

"There's no joy in that part of it," Golden said.

But, he says, faced with nothing but bad choices, this course is better than the alternative. That alternative is a layoff of about 14 people.

"It would dramatically increase class size and it would result in the loss of some programs," Golden said.

For example, the band program, already in serious disrepair, would certainly be gone, because the district could not hire a teacher, Golden said.

"It kills what Sisters is - but I can't get rid of math teachers," he mused.

Yet, Golden notes that cutting programs Sisters values, but which are not part of "core" academics, isn't as straightforward as it might seem.

"If you want to shoot at programs, getting rid of the Americana Project, getting rid of Chinese, doesn't save you any money, because they are all grant-funded," Golden said.

The superintendent is convinced that the plan he is rolling out is the best path forward in the face of stark budget realities. He encourages the patrons of the district to attend the March 12 workshop to learn more about the proposal.

"I want to hear from people," he said.

Reader Comments

Posted: Monday, March 10, 2014
Article comment by: Lance Brant

I really congradulate that Sisters residents supportof the school and the local experience. When I grew up in 1980s in tumalo-Sisters was too small to support the admin, a high school, and all the functions of a school district. With declining enrollment that I see, maybe working together with Redmond or another school district to normalize admin expense and maybe recruit a 100 kids to go to Sisters is the route.

I know kids from Redmond would love to go to Sisters if they had transportation from Eagle Crest, tumalo and other regions.

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