Decision time on Kent Schools budget

All of the data has been gathered and everyone’s voice has been heard.

For the Kent School Board, now comes the hard part.

With the results of two community work sessions in hand, the board on March 4 assembled a team to help analyze the data and begin to get to the hard work of trimming up to $12 million dollars out of the district’s budget.

“It’s sad to say we’re at a point where we’re getting closer to having to make the decisions we have to make,” Board President Jim Berrios said at the workshop.

The board is grappling with declining revenues and an expected drop in state funds while also trying to make teacher salaries more competitive as part of negotiations with the Kent Education Association, the union that represents teachers in the district.

The teachers’ current contract expires before the start of the next school year and a new contract must be signed to prevent a strike.

The board already has instructed the administration to cut between $2 million and $4 million from administrative budgets, which will reduce the number of administrators at the central office, which is already among the lowest in the state, as well as at the building level.

During the special session, the board got its first look at the weighted priorities of the community, the leadership team and a citizens’ budget review committee, or CBRC.

Coming out on top was maintaining the district’s athletics. Sharing the number-two slot were the district’s vocal music programs and physical education at the elementary level.

Coming in third was maintaining a six-period day at the middle school, which was the third-ranked priority of the public and the CBRC, but actually finished lower on the leadership team’s list.

In the final tally, maintaining music and P.E. was the top concern of the CBRC, while the leadership team favored maintaining elementary instruction: a group of line items that contains all non-classroom specialists at the elementary level, including librarians, instructional coaches, counselors and technology support.

Coming out at the bottom of the priority lists were maintaining secondary classes of fewer than 20 students (which would lead to increased class size at the high schools) and maintaining the current non-teacher schedule. The board had discussed the possibility of cutting one paid day a year.

While the board committed to respecting the community priorities, some discussion focused on the number of people who attended the meetings intent on protecting their interest, be it athletics, band or one of the other specific items on the list.

Berrios reminded the board and the team that they cannot maintain a narrow focus.

“Whatever the decisions are (they) have to be based on what’s best for kids and the community,” Berrios said.

Discussions with the 17-member leadership team, made up of the superintendent’s cabinet and representatives from the principals, focused on developing a set of parameters to make the necessary cuts, which are expected to strike every level of the district.

“We’re all in this together and there’s going to need to be some sacrifices,” Berrios told the group after discussions on the two lowest priorities lasted more than 15 minutes.

The problem is the interconnectedness of programs and the need to negotiate with the union’s items within 13 of the 23 groups considered for cutting.

“Some of this stuff is not real,” board member Bill Boyce said of the items that will need to be bargained.

Other members of staff warned against making cuts on the backs of any one union or group of workers, such as classified staff, while at the same time raising pay for another group like teachers.

There was some confusion in the room as the board asked staff, who “lives with this everyday,” for their recommendations while staff requested from the board their recommendations so they could begin explaining the impacts of projected cuts.

A 12-point set of parameters was eventually introduced by board Vice President Chris Davies. At the top of the list was protecting the health and safety of students, followed by a balanced budget. Public opinion was to be taken into consideration third, with other parameters including maintaining as many jobs as possible, sharing the pain, and keeping as much balance as possible between elementary and secondary education, as well as maintaining the equity toward which the board has worked.

“Those kids that need extra help, we have to protect them,” Davies said.

The board also recognized that some line items, even within low priority groups, must be maintained.

“Within each of these categories are ‘untouchables,’” Davies said. “Things that can’t be cut.”

Despite not knowing the full amount they will receive from the state, the board has said it intends to make its final decision on the budget March 25.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Berrios said.