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School board to face difficult decisions on what to cut


District leaders are facing difficult decisions on what to cut from Lake Roosevelt Schools. - Jacob Wagner photo

Some unpopular decisions may have to be made within the Grand Coulee Dam School District to balance the budget.

Superintendent Paul Turner brought the topic up at the district's Oct. 15 board meeting, urging the board to bring up areas of the budget that they think may need to be scrutinized.

"How do we cut $400,000?" Turner asked. "I've been thinking through it pretty strongly."

Turner said he's been coming up with a list of items to potentially be cut, and he wants the board to let him know what they think the hierarchy of that list should be.

"I would recommend that we spend a lot of time in that arena," Turner said. "We can't take a hit next year like we did this year. ... We'll be broke. ... We're going to have to change our mindset a little bit. This year we're going to have to really roll our sleeves up and make some not-popular, gut-wrenching decisions on our expenditures. There may be some athletic stuff we want to cut back. Oh gosh. We have to start looking at our programs."

"We need to understand ... when we eliminate something, what are the savings." Board Chairman Rich Black said.

"I place 100% of this situation on the state of Washington," Board Director Butch Stanger said, adding that other districts in the state are struggling. "There needs to be some legislative compromise. The Washington State Legislature needs to react."

Black agreed that the situation is a legislative issue, but emphasized doing what they can as a board.

"I've heard a lot of districts say, 'we'll just run out of money and let the state fix it,' and that's one way to approach it," Black said. "But I think to be good stewards we have to do our best to eliminate stuff that we don't have to have to educate our kids. ... I think we have to do our best as a school board to eliminate some of the low-hanging fruit, some of the things which we don't necessarily get a huge gain advantage for the money we invest."

Turner emphasized that the district doesn't have a lot of "fluff."

"Other districts have a lot of extra things they're going to start chopping," he said, "but dang it, we're down to the bare bones as it is. Not a lot more skin on the cat."

"It's going to be very hard to eliminate $400,000 without cutting into meaningful issues," Black said.

Stanger said the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction takes over schools in financial dire straits that can't balance their budgets.

Turner noted that the budget includes new textbooks for various classes on a rotating basis every five years, which cost about $50,000-$75,000 a year, and some cuts may need to be made there.

He urged the board to help him "look hard at the budget, really fine tune it, and bring it under control."

"I think we have an obligation to, like it or not," Black said.

The 2019-20 school year budget expenditures total $12.9 million, approximately $400,000 more than the revenues.

According to the schools' current budget projections, a beginning fund balance of nearly $1.2 million for the 2019-20 school year will shrink to about $640,000 for the 2020-21 school year, then to $37,000 for the following school year, and a negative $623,000 for the 2022-23 school year.

Turner said this has been caused by changes in state law, and that many other school districts are in the same boat.

The 2012 "McCleary decision" by the state Supreme Court ruled that the state wasn't fully funding basic education, and it required the Legislature to do something about it.

To fulfill the requirement, the state, in essence, then told districts they couldn't ask for as much money in levies and began taking 81 cents per thousand dollars of assessed property value for the state to fund basic education - money formerly taken by the local schools in "operations and maintenance" levies.

New laws changed the former O&M levy into two separate levies - a capital projects levy, and an enrichment levy.

Additional restrictions on how schools could spend money collected from those levies, plus increases in salaries and other additional expenses, further complicate the budget process.

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