Cuts loom for schools across Snohomish County

Declining enrollment, rising teacher salaries and skyrocketing fuel costs are squeezing school budgets throughout Snohomish County.

To compensate, districts are looking at cutting services, including special education, school bus routes and classroom assistant hours, or dipping deep into their reserves.

“In 29 years I have never seen school district budgets stretched so tightly,” said Jerry Jenkins, superintendent of the Northwest Educational Service District 189, which provides resources and training to 35 school districts from Snohomish County to the Canadian border.

Districts aren’t looking to lay off teachers, but many expect to have fewer faculty next year through attrition.

The Edmonds School District plans to cut $3.2 million from its current $179 million budget. The equivalent of around 16 full-time positions may be eliminated next year, including office workers, classroom assistants and administrators, district spokeswoman Debbie Jakala said.

“It is just something you clearly do not want to do, but under the current funding structure, we have no choice but to start looking at ways to pare back the amount of staffing we have in certain areas,” she said. “Without question, we’re trying to keep it away from the classroom as much as we can.”

Special education will likely take a substantial blow, with around $720,000 in cuts planned. The district also expects to take six buses off the road and save around $200,000 by changing school start times. High school will start 10 minutes earlier, while some middle and elementary schools will start 10 minutes later, enabling bus drivers to squeeze in more routes.

Students also may have to pay more for lunch and to play middle and high school sports.

A Legislature-approved cost-of-living increase for teachers is costing Snohomish County schools around $20 million, according to Northwest Educational Service District 189 and local school district estimates.

The Legislature’s willingness to boost teacher salaries and other education spending has far-reaching ramifications on school district budgets. The state pays for some but not all teachers and other support staff, leaving it up to school districts to make up the difference.

“The funding model for schools and the way money is allocated is so archaic and complex that even when attempting to do a positive thing, you can end up seriously damaging the systems in place, and that’s what occurred,” Jenkins said.

Rising diesel prices are making field trips, food and daily bus runs more expensive.

In Snohomish, for instance, the district expects to pay $350,000 more in diesel costs than it did a year ago.

“Fuel is a biggie,” said Karen Riddle, the district’s finance director.

Every district in the county except Snohomish is facing declining or stagnant enrollment. Since the state pays schools around $5,000 for each student, declining enrollment hurts districts’ bottom lines. The Edmonds district is predicting a loss of 250 to 275 students, while Everett could lose 100.

The Snohomish School District, which will open a large new high school in September, expects to dip into its reserves for $2 million next year and the Everett and Mukilteo school districts each expect to use $1 million in reserves.

In Lakewood, the school board is trying to either fund or cut between $450,000 and $500,000 from the budget through local levies, grants, reductions or by shifting spending.

Lake Stevens plans to cut $1.4 million from its budget through attrition and changes in the curriculum and instruction department.

Marysville is faring better than last year, but still needs to cut between $700,000 and $900,000, said Jim Baker, executive director of finance. The district is considering reducing its equipment replacement fund, cutting from health services and reducing the number of extra paid days librarians receive each year.

“Basically we roll up our sleeves and start over each year, looking at our current programs and what they will cost to continue into the next school year,” Baker said. “Unfortunately, in Marysville, we continue to find our operating costs are rising faster than our revenue sources.”

The Monroe School District is doing better than most because it initiated painful cuts last year. Still, declining enrollment in traditional schools and rising enrollment in the district’s alternative programs will likely mean five teaching positions in traditional schools won’t be filled, district spokeswoman Rosemary O’Neil said.

“With the cost of everything going up — whether it’s bus fuel, just like the gas you buy for cars, or whether it’s medical insurance benefits — there will never be a time when we don’t have to economize,” O’Neil said.

Reporter Kaitlin Manry: 425-339-3292 or kmanry@heraldnet.com.

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