A Message from Superintendent Greg Baker
Dear Bellingham Families,
Thank you for taking the time to stay informed and share your thinking about our budget development process. Since April 23rd, the video of our budget presentation to the Parent Advisory Council has been viewed nearly 900 times and we’ve received feedback from dozens of people through the related online survey. The timing of our process to develop The Bellingham Promise has also been helpful in terms of the dialogue and opportunity to clarify our priorities together. From conversations and meetings with parents, staff members, and community leaders, as well as emails and survey responses, several themes have emerged in the feedback and those themes are highlighted below.
After several years of budget reductions, I imagine it will not surprise you to know that there weren't any magic bullets in the feedback we received. Many responses acknowledged the difficulties involved in allocating resources to continue to move our priorities forward while making the reductions necessary to create a balanced budget.
Throughout the month of May, we will continue to refine and build the 2012-13 budget so that it is ready for board action in June. We will leave the survey link open through the end of this week. (Now closed.) If additional thoughts or ideas come to mind, please feel welcomed to share them with me.
Note: If you shared your thoughts with us, please don't worry if your specific question or comment isn't represented below; all of the feedback we received electronically and in person is being considered. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but is an overview of the areas which generated the most discussion or comments.
Many people shared questions and concerns about the impacts associated with increasing class sizes. There is a long list of things to be frustrated about when it comes to state and federal funding; this issue is clearly at the top. We have worked hard to absorb the state's progressively deeper funding cuts while protecting class sizes as much as possible. As I mentioned in earlier budget updates, if we allowed the state and federal cuts to flow straight through our system, they would increase class sizes by 4-5 students. We are able to mitigate some of that impact with local funding, and when I last updated you we were targeting an increase of 2-3 students. As we have continued to refine next year’s budget, we have decided to invest a bit more in staffing at the middle and high school levels in order to slow the rate of class size increase and give those levels more time to adjust to the changes. Our current draft of the budget is now targeting an increase of 0.7 – 2.5 students.
Some concern has been expressed around preserving course options in our high school program, and we know that reduced staffing at our high schools cannot help but result in fewer course offerings. Fortunately, we do have some resources already in place that we can use to help mitigate some of the impacts for our students. Online learning is one of those resources and our Teaching and Learning Department will be working with secondary administrators and staff to identify the best use of this resource to support our students' needs. We can also continue to look for opportunities for students to access courses that are available at other district high schools when those courses aren’t available in their neighborhood school.
Utilities / Efficiencies
A few people, including students, pointed out opportunities to reduce waste and save on utility costs, for example by remembering to turn off lights and computers. Although our district has done some important work in this area and continues to benefit from efficiencies introduced over the last four years, there is always room for improvement. I have asked a couple of our colleagues with knowledge and interest in this area to work together to help our district take the next steps.
Comments about our district's decision to provide basic school supplies to elementary students generally focused on two questions: whether it is an appropriate activity during this economic climate and whether the process itself could be improved. Speaking to the first question, the current economic climate makes the issue of equity more important than ever. Family and community feedback led us to research this matter last year and what we found was astonishing. The costs associated with each school's supply list ranged from around $20 per student at some schools to more than $200 per student at others. And some of our most economically disadvantaged school communities were the very ones with the most expensive supply lists. Our community has been generous with its funding of local levies and, ideally, we would use those dollars to eliminate all student fees and provide a truly free, appropriate education to all of Bellingham's students. Since eliminating all fees is not possible at this time, we will at least continue to ensure that we support equity between our schools by providing students with the basic provisions necessary for starting school each year.
Speaking to the second question, there is a fair amount of energy around improving the process for how supplies are acquired and distributed. There may be opportunities to reduce costs by systemizing the process more and looking at partnerships, perhaps with parent groups. Deputy Superintendent Tom Venable will convene a group of staff members and parents to think this through and identify opportunities for improvement.
Small School Closures
Many people asked if we should consider closing our smallest schools. It is true that it is more expensive to run small schools, especially when there is capacity available at other schools in the district. Closing schools, however, is not a fast process and it should not be undertaken lightly. Families and communities have strong, sometimes historic, ties to their local schools, and the process of engaging a community in a conversation around consolidation / school closures is rightly one that takes more time than we have between now and the 2012-13 school year. That said, we are getting ready to bring together a citizens advisory committee to undertake a comprehensive facilities study, likely starting this summer/fall. For such a group to do their best work they must be free to consider and discuss all options, including the question of whether the district should continue to operate small schools. Any recommendation to close schools would be broadly communicated and would involve the affected staff members and families.
District Resource Officer
This position was listed as a possible reduction in the budget presentation. We used to have several police officers dedicated to our middle and high schools, and have reduced this program over the years down to one officer for our entire district. Because our one officer shares his time between all of our schools, it can be hard for people in one school to see the positive impact he is having for our kids and our overall safety. I spent some time with the Police Chief talking about this program and we both agree that keeping our DRO is important. The Police Department will take on a larger share of the cost for next year in order to help us keep this valuable partnership going.
A few of the comments related to administrative costs and the reductions listed for next year. Some people asked if there could be further reductions in this area and others expressed concern about our ability to maintain sufficient leadership support and coordination of service with the reductions that were outlined in the budget presentation. Research is clear; strong leadership and central support is critical in order to accomplish a system of excellence (not just pockets of excellence) for all children. It will require creativity and a change in how we deliver support, but we believe we can responsibly make the administrative reductions outlined in the budget proposal, totaling about $340,000, and still make progress toward our shared goals.
Compensation / Employee Contracts
Some people asked whether the district should be back-filling the 1.9-3% salary reduction imposed by the state and a few people asked whether it is possible for everyone to take a small pay cut so that no jobs get cut. Both of those ideas are possible, but complicated. Changing any contracts would require the agreement of all parties to re-open (re-negotiate) the contract.
Highly Capable Learners
Feedback on this issue were mixed. Some people expressed appreciation for the expansion outlined in the budget proposal; some thought it didn't go far enough; and some wondered why we would consider expanding this program in light of other reductions. The conversations we had together around The Bellingham Promise make it clear that we have a shared value around serving all of Bellingham's children. Our current HCL program serves some kids in some schools and leaves others out. The proposed expansion is fairly modest, but helps move us in the right direction toward a more equitable distribution of support for this program.
Early Childhood Education Coordinator
I got a lot of feedback that our investment in early childhood education is important and valuable. While many people are appreciative of the suggestion to add a half-time Early Childhood Coordinator and a few people wondered why we are investing here while we are making reductions elsewhere, the majority of feedback was that that the proposal to create a half-time position didn’t go far enough. I heard from several people who are concerned that we need more support in this area in order to fully capitalize on our investment in full-time kindergarten. As we have looked at how we can be strategic in the use of our special education funding, it is clear that – like in general education – dollars invested in early childhood needs are more than offset by lower costs in later years. I am pleased to announce that, by combining resources from both funds, we will be able to make this position into a full-time TOSA (Teacher on Special Assignment) position.
Thank you for taking the time share your feedback and help us improve our thinking about this complicated puzzle. We will continue to refine and adjust the draft budget over the next couple weeks in preparation for board action in June.