Budget cuts add urgency to phonathon

For about one day out of every school week, Librarian Lynn Ukich isn’t on hand to help children in her Wilkes Elementary School library.

This year Bainbridge School District cut the hours of Ukich and full-time librarians at Blakely Elementary and Ordway Elementary to three-quarters time. On days when no certified librarian is on staff, the libraries can’t open.

“I know (the students) are disappointed on days when the library is closed,” Ukich said. “We try to lessen the impact on them any way we can, but it doesn’t change the fact that on some days there isn’t anyone here to meet their needs.”

Library closures are one of the more visible results of a painful summer budgeting session, which saw school district administrators shore up a $1.5 million projected shortfall. Administrators are quick to point out that BISD has historically received less state funding per pupil than most districts in the state. But this year, funding challenges were exacerbated by a jump in fuel prices and another drop in enrollment.

In the coming week, volunteers for the nonprofit Bainbridge Schools Foundation will take to the phones to help soften the district’s budget blow. The foundation’s annual phonathon, which raises money for teaching materials, teacher training and underfunded school programs, has an added sense of urgency this year, Foundation director Vicky Marsing said.

“When we’ve had budget cuts before, it has cut into extra things or things that probably needed to be streamlined,” Marsing said. “This is the first time, I think, that the cuts have really impacted children’s educations.”

Two months into the school year, parents are familiar with consolidated bus routes and higher service fees, while principals are making the best of lean budgets and fewer staff hours.

The shortfall forced the district to raise fees and cut services in several areas.The price of school lunches was hiked this year, while bus routes were consolidated to help close a $535,000 gap between transportation spending and state funding. The change means many students are walking farther from home to catch their busses.

At Bainbridge High School, administrators chose to raise fees for vehicle parking permits from $75 to $240, in an effort to recoup more of the cost of maintaining the lots. BHS Principal Brent Peterson said the fee hike has brought the parking program close to cost neutral, while prompting students to reconsider how they get to school.

“One of the side benefits of increased parking permits is that there have been more students forming car pools,” Peterson said.

The district cut the equivalent of six full-time staff positions this year. Most cuts were absorbed by retirements and leaves of absense, but BHS was forced to release two full time English teachers. BHS saw declining enrollment this year so class sizes weren’t greatly affected. But the loss of teachers has stretched staff thinner, especially in areas of English and foreign language, Peterson said.

Teaching assistants also bore significant hour cuts throughout the district.

Seventeen of the para-educator positions were not renewed this year, and three para-educators have had their hours reduced, District Director Human Resources Cami Dombkowski said. Many of the para-educators are focused on special needs students and now have less one-on-one time with those students.

For every cut visible to parents, many have been made behind the scenes.

An annual day of training for teachers was cut this year, as were a number of non-student contact days that give staff time to train and plan. Principals have seen the price of everyday items including instructional materials, office equipment and even custodial supplies rise, while budgets tighten.

“It’s like any household really,” new Wilkes Principal Sheryl Belt said. “You look very carefully at every little thing.”

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