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home : education : schools April 29, 2016

3/25/2014 1:33:00 PM
Board takes 4-day week off the table
The enrollment bind
The Sisters School District has to make cuts to make up an $800,000 deficit. And cutting could make the deficit worse going forward. It's a bind that makes the school board's current work as delicate as vascular surgery. Make a mistake and the patient could bleed out.

The state funds education on a weighted per-student basis based on an enrollment calculation known as average daily membership (ADM). Any cuts that threaten the programs, small class sizes and quality of education for which Sisters schools are known threaten to further erode enrollment, worsening the financial bind.

And, while Superintendent Jim Golden sees stabilization of enrollment this year (marked by less-than-usual losses of students late in the year), there is no guarantee that enrollment will not continue to slide.

A major reason for the current fiscal crisis is that Sisters shed more than 200 students since 2007-08, when the district enrolled some 1,376. This year's enrollment has been reported at 1,104 ADM, down just fractionally from 1,117.7 ADM last year. ADM is projected at 1,094.5 for 2014-15.

The bleeding has clearly slowed, but not stopped.

Board member Andrew Gorayeb said, "Our rate of decline is diminishing significantly, so that's good."

He also noted that there has been some job creation in Sisters in the past few months, and the real estate market appears to be recovering from the recession.


"We are dealing with a shift in demographics as well," Gorayeb noted.

Families, especially younger families with elementary-school-age children, find a tough go of it in Sisters economically, and it's not at all clear that an uptick in housing activity means more students in the district.

The district is considering ways to increase both enrollment and revenue (see related story, page 1), but cuts that threaten enrollment in the future are inevitable.

Gorayeb and other board members favor making some contingency plans in the event that enrollment falls off again. That could include consolidating facilities - as in closing the elementary school and remodeling facilities to operate out of two school buildings instead of three. While there would be some costs associated with such a move, it would save on maintenance, transportation and personnel costs.

It's not an option anybody likes.

"I'm not advocating for that," Gorayeb emphasized. "But I am advocating for being smart, being nimble, being prepared."

The district has also been urged to consider selling the administration building located in the old school house at the east end of town and consolidating administrative functions in one of the district's other buildings. (Such a sale might not realize as much as people might think, because the building is on the National Registry of Historic Places, which imposes significant restrictions on what can be done with the building.)

The school board is left to cut aggressively enough to make the budget balance while hoping to avoid paying the price in lost enrollment. And the future, as is ever the case with public education in Oregon, is fraught with uncertainty.

By Jim Cornelius
News Editor

The Sisters School Board has taken moving to a four-day school week off the table -at least for now - as a means to combat an approximately $800,000 budget shortfall for the 2014-15 school year. Click here to view a breakdown of the deficit.

The board met Friday afternoon in a workshop to review community suggestions on how to make up for the budget deficit. The consensus was that the community does not want a four-day week and that implementing such a program could reduce enrollment, worsening the budget crisis.

"We have no idea of what this is going to do to enrollment or what we're going to save," said board member Justin Durham. "Cross it off."

Board Chair Don Hedrick later offered a note of caution on the subject. He told The Nugget that the board might have to revisit the option if other means do not do enough to close the funding gap.

"We don't want to do it, but it's not dead," he said.

The board is exploring a suggested alternatives, including cutting school days both this year and next (saving about $32,000 per day); marketing the district to recruit out-of-district transfers; raising pay-to-play fees; looking at consolidating some facilities, and other options.

Board members also said that the district will also have to seek a construction and technology upgrade bond, regardless of what they determine for immediate solutions to the fiscal crisis.

The board broke ideas into three categories: immediate, short-term, and long-term, trying to determine what options should be placed before the community at a public meeting on April 9.

Some options suggested by the public did not make the cut for further examination - for example, eliminating all-day kindergarten. Savings would not be great and the district would simply have to ramp up to it again in a year, as elementary school Principal Mark Stewart noted that all-day kindergarten will be mandated in 2015-16. He also said that the district would lose enrollment from families that bring their kids to Sisters specifically for all-day kindergarten.

Similarly, reducing staff and increasing class sizes could have a negative impact on enrollment - though that could be necessary.

"One of the reasons we have kids coming into our district is our lower class sizes as opposed to Bend or Redmond," Hedrick said.

Board member Melvin Herburger noted that in a small district, "if you're talking about (cutting) teachers, unfortunately that means eliminating programs." Many of those programs are among the "selling points" for Sisters schools.

The board believes that reducing the contingency fund is not a viable option. Originally the numbers presented to the community indicated that the $800,000 deficit could be reduced by foregoing adding to the sparse reserves. But numbers presented by Sandy Tartaglia, district business manager, indicate that the deficit is at $800,000 even keeping the contingency fund at $200,000.

The discussion reflected the complexity of the bind in which the district finds itself. The main cause of the deficit is loss of enrollment, which has declined by some 200 students since its peak in 2006-08. Since the state funds schools on a per student basis at a rate of roughly $6,700, each student lost represents a hit to the budget. (See related story, page 23.)

Increasing enrollment is one of the board and community's preferred fixes to the budget crunch. "Open enrollment" means that families that live in other school districts in the region can send their kids to Sisters schools.

"I think the inter-district transfer option is not well-known," Hedrick said.

Hedrick and board member Kay Grady favor tasking a citizens' group to "market" Sisters schools across the region to encourage such transfers. However, even if such a campaign gets underway now and succeeds in attracting students, state funding lags, so it would not have an immediate impact on the budget deficit.

Another idea that has gained some traction is a suggestion by former school board member Jeff Smith that citizens step up and voluntarily donate the difference between the "compressed" value of their local option contribution and the amount they would be paying without compression.

All of these ideas and more will be fleshed out with financial impact numbers attached in anticipation of an April 9 public meeting. The school board is attempting to set a definite course by the time the budget process is due to be completed in mid-May.

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