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State braces for $2.5 billion budget shortfall

After making $2.1 million in cuts to the 2009-2010 general fund, the Bainbridge Island School District is preparing for the effects of a possible $2.5 billion shortfall in the upcoming state budget.

With that problem in mind, the school district officials and State Rep. Christine Rolfes hosted a community forum Tuesday to discuss the implications of the projected state and school district budgets.

Rolfes, Supt. Faith Chapel and Seattle lawyer Tom Ahearne gave presentations regarding the different aspects of school funding.

“The state budget is property tax and sales tax driven, and when you have the reductions in sales tax that we’ve seen because of the recession, that hits our state’s revenue really hard,” Rolfes said.

The governor’s budget will be released later this month. Once the budget goes through the House and the Senate, the school district will have until the end of June to finalize the budget, Chapel said.

“Last year there was a significant difference between the governor’s budget and what happened with the House and Senate,” Chapel said. “The economic forecast kept getting worse every few weeks. There was a significant difference. I don’t know what to predict but this year.”

Ahearne, who is the lead attorney for the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools lawsuit, began the forum with a presentation about the shortcomings of the state’s funding.

Ahearne, who is also a Woodward parent, highlighted the inequalities between school districts.

“It’s important for us —especially on Bainbridge, where we live in a very safe, upper-class island which is sheltered from most of the state — is to understand that there’s a bigger picture here,” Ahearne said. “Statewide, our school system is nothing like Bainbridge Island.”

Of the school district’s 2009-2010 budget, 64 percent came from state funds, while 21 percent came from local taxes.

School districts compensate for the shortfalls of state funding through local dollars, Ahearne said.

Local taxes fund nearly half of the district’s classified staff, Chapel said.

Of the school district’s general fund, 86 percent of expenditures are on staff salaries and benefits.

“We pay $7.2 million for staff positions that are not funded by the state,” Chapel said. “Anytime you have a budget reduction of some kind, you can see it starts to impact our staff.”

State allocations also do not cover transportation or special education costs, which exceeded state revenue by $545,000 and $1 million last year, respectively, Chapel said.

Federal funds and local non-taxes make up the remaining 15 percent of the school district’s budget. Federal funding, which usually composes two or three percent of the district budget, made up seven percent of the 2009-2010 budget due to fiscal stabilization dollars, Chapel said.

Local non-tax revenue, which includes athletic fees, makes up eight percent of the district’s budget. The school district’s $250 fee per sport is one of the highest in the state, Chapel said.

During the open forum portion, several community members had questions about the local levy lid, which is 24.98 percent of state and federal funding.

“We can’t ask for more,” Chapel said. “That’s why things like bonds or tech levy, they provide supplemental funding so we can keep as much of our local levy dollars focused on staff and things like instructional materials.”

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