Official: Schools' special programs face large cuts

Richland schools will not be able to maintain current student achievement levels in the coming years, a district official warns.

The reason is that special intervention programs face dramatic financial cuts. The programs help the district keep up its test results even as it has faced an influx of ill-prepared students.

Erich Bolz, assistant superintendent for special programs, told the school board Tuesday that his programs stand to lose as much as $1.6 million next school year.

Richland schools' student population has changed in the past decade, Bolz said.

District Superintendent Jim Busey has said previously that the district has gone from having 19 percent of students eligible for free lunch programs in 2003 to 33 percent.

Eligibility for subsidized lunches is a commonly used indicator for student family income level.

"We've become a poorer community," Bolz said.

That should have driven down Richland's student achievement.

Poverty at home correlates directly with lower student achievement in education, Bolz said. For example, a majority of Richland kindergartners in 2007-08 "didn't know enough of their letters and sounds," he said, which meant they needed special help learning to read.

But despite the falling income level, Richland students' test results have stayed flat.

That's because the district has been creative in finding money for special programs, using federal stimulus dollars and state grants, Bolz said.

But that money will dry up in the next state budget biennium, he said. His programs received $350,000 in stimulus money, and "nothing suggests that this funding will be replaced," as the stimulus expires, Bolz said.

Cuts to Medicaid, which reimburses schools for certain special education expenses, will cut into his budget further. State grants run out and new ones are hard to come by.

Overall, Bolz anticipates losing between $1.1 million and $1.6 million for the 2011-12 school year, which will force him to trim the budget.

"Cuts can't come anywhere but staffing, ultimately," he said.

Richland school officials will meet with state legislators in mid-December. Staving off deep cuts to the special programs will be on that meeting's agenda, school board members agreed.