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Small Mid-Columbia school districts keep budgets steady

No surprises awaited kids in the Mid-Columbia's smaller school districts this week.

That's a good thing -- despite state and federal budget cuts, and despite declining enrollment in some of the rural districts, all schools are able to provide the same offerings to kids as last year.

None of the smaller districts went through massive layoffs or had to cut entire programs.

But all had to squeeze their budgets.

North Franklin

Schools in Mesa and Connell are projected to have slightly more students this year than they did last year, an anomaly among the area's small districts.

For accounting purposes, those schools show a great increase in full-time equivalents of students -- 1,970 this year compared with 1,850 last year.

But that's because kindergartners were counted as half-timers last year, bringing in only half as much money from the state as their older peers, said Cindy Sital, fiscal services director.

The district this year qualified for a new state program that pays low-income schools to offer all-day kindergarten. That means an increase in revenue for the district.

Despite that increase, North Franklin's budget is nearly $1.8 million in the red, slashing the district's reserves in half.

North Franklin will spend just more than $20 million on its schools this year. Out of that, it is moving almost $1.5 million from operations to buildings. That money will go toward updating and expanding Connell's middle and high schools.

The district is reeling under the loss of federal stimulus money and decreased state funding to pay teachers, Sital said.

The district and its union reached a compromise about the state-mandated 1.9 percent cut in teacher salaries.

The two met halfway on the cut, with the district absorbing some of it and teachers taking slightly smaller paychecks, said Superintendent Gregg Taylor.

Finley

Teachers in Finley accepted the entire legislated pay cut. Their pay will be 1.9 percent lower than it was last year, but they will get time off in return.

Kids won't lose any class time though, said Superintendent Lance Hahn. The teachers will be sent home on early release days instead of using those afternoons for paid training and staff meeting time, as they previously had.

The district will spend almost $10 million to operate its schools this year. This means it will have to take about $225,000 out of its savings, leaving it with $675,000 in reserves.

No teachers were laid off, but the equivalent of two full-time teachers who left the district weren't replaced. Teacher's aides will spend less time in the classroom this year unless enrollment numbers prove to be higher than budgeted, Hahn said.

Enrollment is expected to be flat at 925 students, although this number also includes the full-day accounting of kindergartners.

The actual number of kids attending Finley schools, therefore, is lower than it was last year.

Kiona-Benton City

Enrollment also has dropped in Ki-Be schools. Last year's number of 1,480 students is expected to drop by about 100, said Superintendent Rom Castilleja.

That means the state will be sending about $500,000 less to Benton City than it did last year, he said.

The district has cut a transportation supervisor position, initially laid off four teachers and hired less-expensive contractors for some administrative services.

It is assuming to pass on the mandated pay cut to its teachers, although negotiations for this are ongoing.

These measures allowed it to balance its budget.

A $14.8 million proposal the board approved this summer showed a $73,000 surplus.

But the district has since rehired two of the teachers, erasing the surplus, Castilleja said.

Burbank

The Columbia School District in Burbank also produced a budget proposal containing a small surplus this summer that since was modified.

The nearly $9 million budget plan produced a cushion of $26,000, said Superintendent Lou Gates.

The district since has hired a part-time teacher for the fifth grade, Gates said, and the district still is negotiating with its teachers about the mandated pay cuts.

If teachers refuse to accept the state pay cut, the budget could run into the red.

The district didn't have to lay off any teachers because two teachers announced their retirements this spring. They will not be replaced, Gates said.

District enrollment is down by 20, to 829 expected students this year.

Prosser

As the Herald reported previously, the Prosser School District had to resort to a contentious measure to make its budget work -- leaving school libraries mostly staffed by aides and turning librarians into classroom teachers.

The school board earlier this month narrowly approved a $28.4 million general budget.

It faced a $1.3 million shortfall.

The district decided to draw $570,000 from its savings account and to not hire additional teachers to replace retiring staff. Instead, librarians would fill some of those openings.

Prosser projected it would have about the same number of students as last year -- 2,750 -- which is more than 100 below the figure of two years ago.

Parents and teachers at the time questioned why cuts couldn't be made in places other than the libraries. But custodians and office staff had already been trimmed to a minimum during the past years, Superintendent Ray Tolcacher told them during an August board meeting.

His response likely describes the feelings of his colleagues in the other small districts.

"We're as bare as you can get in this district," Tolcacher said.

-- Jacques Von Lunen: 582-1402; jvonlunen@tricityherald.com

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