School crisis looming

February 10, 2003 11:00 pm
Some children at Bess Maxwell school take some time out for a snack. A large range of suggestions are being made to save money in the district, although officials say no preferred course of action has been identified yet. (Stephen M. Corley/ The Daily Triplicate).
Some children at Bess Maxwell school take some time out for a snack. A large range of suggestions are being made to save money in the district, although officials say no preferred course of action has been identified yet. (Stephen M. Corley/ The Daily Triplicate).

By Kent Gray

Triplicate staff writer

School closures, layoffs and salary reductions are some of the possibilities being suggested to help Del Norte County's school district make up a possible shortfall of $2.7 million over the next two years.

"The most important thing to get across here is that these are just options being discussed and the district hasn't valued any of them above any others," said Assistant Superintendent Rodney Jahn, of the Del Norte County Unified School District.

Teacher union representative Ryan Bouchard acknowledged that discussions are preliminary, but warned deep cuts will come.

"The main thing is, this is about as serious as I have seen it in 13 years. Everybody is going to hurt on this," said Bouchard. "I know the district is looking for places to cut and we're working along with the district on ideas and offering input."

Adding to the seriousness, Jahn said, is the fact that cuts are likely for several years to come.

One idea suggested in meetings last week was to close Margaret Keating School in Klamath and allow the tribe to absorb students and staff.

Closing Bess Maxwell School, at an estimated savings of $250,000, was another suggestion. Principal Dennis Louy acknowledged the idea yesterday but said it was one of many ideas expressed during a ‘brainstorming' session.

Closing any school and dispersing the students would not reduce the number of teachers and their salaries, said Jahn, unless the district also increased its class sizes. Increasing class sizes, however, was the least popular option among participants in previous budget meetings.

Bess Maxwell currently has 310 students, but this number has been declining and the drop is expected to continue. Jahn said although the closure of Bess Maxwell may not happen in the near future, it is a possibility down the road.

The closure of Mountain School, which is now under construction after burning to the ground two years ago, was also suggested. Jahn said this presented a different kind of problem.

"It would be tough to close a school that hasn't even been occupied yet," Jahn said. "In a case like this it would cost more to stop the project than to continue it."

The reconstruction of Mountain School is paid mostly through guaranteed state funds with the bulk of local matching funds already spent. Jahn said its loss as a community center and the planned gymnasium on campus would be great.

Stopping construction projects, generally, would do little to alleviate the district's funding problems.

"It doesn't really benefit us to stop the modernization projects funded by state bond measure money because it can't be used for anything else but those projects," said Jahn. "If we don't use that money, we potentially lose out on about $10 million to modernize our facilities. And we already spent our share in the design and engineering portions for those."

Another option discussed was cutting salaries across the board by 3.66 percent.

"Superintendent Frank Lynch said it would be a shame for the district to have to lay off teachers when it had been avoided in the past through attrition," said Jahn. "The 3.66 percent decrease in salaries across the board was suggested as a way to find $890,000 in savings."

Although the bottom salary schedule for teachers in the county is $34,000 per year, this rises in costs to the district when stipends, payroll costs and health and welfare benefits are included. Jahn said upper-end teachers cost about $75,000 per year with everything included. Lower-end teachers, who are in their first or second year, are closer to $48,000.

Bouchard estimated administrators in the county earn between $70,000 and $100,000 without overhead included.

Bouchard said although there are no good solutions being placed on the table, there are no appealing ones in the wings either.

Bouchard said he would be contacting his membership this week for direction on which way to go in discussions with administrators.

In the meantime, Bouchard said he would like to see more interest from the community at the meetings.

"There has been practically nobody there – almost no community members," said Bouchard. "That's pretty disappointing. I know if I was a parent out there I would want to get involved in this. If they realized what kinds of programs may end up being cut, it would probably get them involved."

To see the entire list of budget suggestions, go to the district Web site at: http://web2.delnorte.k12.-ca.us/budget/budget.html.

Budget meetings are set for 6 p.m. Feb. 12 at Margaret Keating School, 6 p.m. Feb. 19 at Mountain School and 9 a.m. to noon Feb. 22 at the district office.

The next regularly scheduled school board meeting is at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday Feb. 13 at the school district office at 301 West Washington Boulevard.