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School budget leaves Bainbridge teachers in a waiting game

For 17 Bainbridge educators, an anxious wait has begun.

In the last week, 10 full-time and seven part-time certificated staff members have received notification from Bainbridge Island School District that their positions will not be renewed.

The district was required to dole out Reduction in Force notifications by May 15, but administrators are expecting a number of the positions will be renewed as budget planning continues.

For now, all educators can do is wait for clarity to emerge.

“It’s beyond painful,” said Boo Schneider, president of the Bainbridge Island Education Association. “These are people who are homeowners, who have kids going into college. Or they’re younger and are committed to paying for cars or rent. It’s scary.”

Notifications to certificated staff were made under the shadow of a $2 million to $2.2 million projected budget shortfall for the 2009-2010 school year. Supt. Faith Chapel said the district hopes some of the positions will be regained through retirements, better-than-expected enrollment or rosier final funding numbers from the state, which are expected next week.

As far as administrators can recall, these are the deepest cuts the district has made in at least 15 years.

“We’re hoping we don’t have to act on all of these,” Chapel said. “It has been a sobering experience.”

There are just three school board meetings left before the preliminary budget is approved in June. Cuts to classified staff positions have yet to be determined.

Despite the number of positions being lost, Schneider said she was pleased with the budget process the district has used this year, which included input from two community surveys and six budget subcommittees.

“I don’t know of another district that has been this transparent,” Schneider said.

Positions outlined for elimination include seven full-time equivalent teaching positions from grades K-6. Several middle and high school teaching and district-wide support positions are also on the list.

In past years staff cuts in BISD have largely been absorbed through attrition, but the district has seen few retirements and leaves this year. Schneider said teachers seem reticent to leave their posts in an uncertain economy. They have also had trouble getting clear information about their retirement packages from the state, she said.

Teachers given RIF notice will be placed in a recall pool, Schneider said. Any reinstatements will be drawn from that pool, based on seniority and disciplines needed.

Wilkes Elementary teacher Rebecca Grue, who has been with the district four years, was among the full-time staff members who received a RIF notice but is hopeful that her position will be renewed.

She said she lays blame on the state for failing to come through with funding.

“Education is the framework of our society,” Grue said. “It’s devastating to not have adequate funding from the state for our students and our educational programs.”

Along with teachers receiving RIFs, all eight teachers who were employed by the district on short-term, leave-replacement contracts were told they would not be kept on.

Leave-replacement contracts, which usually last a year, are never guaranteed to lead to continuing contracts, but are frequently renewed in normal budget cycles. Many teachers see them as a way of getting a foot in the door of a district.

That was the gamble Wilkes Elementary fourth-grade teacher Megan Watson took when she turned down a long-term contract in Bremerton to join Bainbridge as a leave-replacement two years ago.

Watson, who has 10 years of teaching experience, now finds herself looking for work in a sparse job market while waiting to hear if something will open on Bainbridge. She’s considering moving to Australia, where teachers are in high demand. Like Grue, she blames the state funding model for her predicament.

“I love Bainbridge Island and would have stayed here for the rest of my professional career,” Watson said. “I am very sad that I have been placed into the position of looking for a job internationally as there seems to be no jobs available in our state.”

For a number of district staff members, renewal may depend on what programs are cut in the final budget.

The district’s Budget Advisory Committee is still tuning its recommendations to the board and awaiting final numbers from the state. The committee has identified more than $2 million in possible cuts and savings throughout the district’s operating budget, many with staffing implications.

The district’s nursing program is among those being discussed for downsizing. The board could choose to thin the nursing staff to the level it is contractually obligated to maintain: one nurse per 2,500 students. The program is currently staffed by full-time nurse Heidi McKay and four part-time nurses.

McKay said the is 25-year- old doesn’t reflect the wide range of conditions modern school nurses are tasked with.

“It’s not realistic in terms of the type of students we deal with,” McKay said.

The district’s multicultural program may also be restructured. The 0.4 FTE multicultural coordinator position, held by Maria Rivera, may be cut although Rivera will likely be placed elsewhere in the district; she was not given a RIF notice.

Colleagues, students and community members have been turning out to board meetings to support Rivera’s role.

Rivera said the most important thing is that the multicultural program and the United Brothers and Sisters club that she advises would continue, even if her position is cut and funding is restructured.

“I know it’s just the budget, it’s not personal,” Rivera said. “It’s not about me, it’s about the program.”

Amid the grim budget news of the last several weeks, there have been glimmers of good news. For the second straight year, the number of children being signed up for kindergarten is higher than expected, which means the district may add a full-day kindergarten class.

Next week, the Bainbridge Schools Foundation plans to launch a “Save Our Teachers” fundraising drive, with the hopes of funding the recall of teachers.

Meanwhile the waiting game will continue.

“Things will change between May 15 and the start of the school year,” Assistant Supt. Bruce Colley said. “That’s the one thing we do know for sure.”

The school board will meet May 28 and June 11. A preliminary budget may be approved June 25.

For information about the upcoming Schools Foundation fundraiser see www.bainbridgeschoolsfoundation.org.

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