Budget worries: Kent schools could see $7.1 million funding gap next year

It’s shaping up to be another difficult budget year in the Kent School District. Projections from Financial Director John Knutson, based on the governor’s budget proposal for 2010-2001, show an estimated $7.1 million drop in funding for next year, a gap that could mean a round of staff cuts this spring.

It’s shaping up to be another difficult budget year in the Kent School District.

Projections from Financial Director John Knutson, based on the governor’s budget proposal for 2010-2001, show an estimated $7.1 million drop in funding for next year, a gap that could mean a round of staff cuts this spring.

“It means we’re going to have to figure out how to fill that gap,” Knutson said in a phone interview Wednesday.

This is the second year in a row the district is facing a budget gap of about $7 million. In the 2009-2010 budget, the district made $3.4 million in cuts to the central office and and administration and another $3.2 million in cuts from a community priority list.

Additional cuts were expected last year, including the layoff of 29 teachers, nearly all of whom were recalled following an influx of federal stimulus dollars to the state, which was passed on to school districts.

Kent received approximately $10 million in federal stimulus dollars in the 2009-2010 budget, which made up almost the entire drop in state funding.

This year, however, Knutson said federal money to help plug the holes is unlikely.

“We’re not hearing that it is (coming),” he said of additional federal money.

Knutson said the projections come from state and district analysis of the governor’s “Book II” budget, which attempts to close a state budget gap estimated at $2.6 billion.

According to Knutson, the drop in funding comes in two spots, general apportionment and state categorical programs.

Knutson said the governor’s proposal eliminates a learning-improvement day, which provides the district with $500,000, as well as cutting money for K-4 instructional staff enhancement. Knutson estimated Kent’s share would be a loss of about $1.9 million.

The K-4 enhancement money is provided by the state to lower class sizes in the primary grades and pays primarily for additional teachers.

“The governor’s proposal proposes to remove that,” Knutson said.

In addition, Knutson estimated a drop of $4.7 million in categorical program money, such as I-728 dollars, approved by voters in 2000 and used by Kent to reduce class sizes and pay for professional development. Money for the initiative has been cut considerably in the past two years already.

According to Knutson, in 2008-2009, the district received $11 million in I-728 money from the state, but that number dropped to $3.4 million in 2009-2010.

This year, the governor’s budget drops it to zero.

In addition, Knutson projects the district to lose $1 million in full-day kindergarten funding as well as additional money for its highly capable and bilingual programs.

Knutson also reiterated that the budget numbers are not final and that no final decisions would be made until after the Legislature approves a final budget.

School Board President Debbie Straus said Kent remains hopeful for a funding increase from the Legislature.

“We’re hopeful when the legislators are done that gap will have reduced some,” she said.

Straus said the district made “considerable cuts” last year and was operating at a “pretty bare-bones level” as it is, but said it would be “premature” to discuss any potential cuts.

“We’re going to keep going along and hoping for the best,” she said.

Superintendent Edward Lee Vargas, who is in his first year as superintendent, echoed that sentiment.

“We have been told that Kent School District can expect approximately $7.1 million less in state funding for next school year. These reductions would be particularly painful because they are in addition to more than $6 million in reductions made this school year,” Vargas said in an e-mail. “When the state Legislature adjourns on March 11, the district will have a better sense of the financial impact. We will then propose a budget to the board that reflects our priorities and our overall mission.”

Another financial update is scheduled for the Feb. 24 Kent School Board Meeting, 7 p.m. at the administration center.

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