Tough choices must follow a fair process

Brace yourself, this ride is going to be more than bumpy as population and budget realities paint a daunting picture for the projected Orcas Island School District budget next year.

The District Board, Superintendent and Administrators will all need Herculean powers of wisdom and discretion, and parents, students, teachers and staff will need the same measures of patience, forbearance, and yes, sacrifice to obtain the same high-caliber of education that the district has achieved in the past.

It is particularly unfortunate, given the hard work and faith these people, and the community at large, notably Orcas Island Education Foundation, have put into constructing a solid foundation under the schools’ finances after years of mismanagement and lack of foresight.

Now the bleak economic outlook and the decisions by State Legislators have left us with a good solid car, fueled by what will have to be strictly-rationed gas. And the fact is, with declining enrollment, we do have fewer passengers that will most likely enjoy fewer “accessories.”

Public school districts are hamstrung by the severely-regulated restrictions as to how funding can be spent. If reports aren’t accurate or timely, and if policies aren’t in compliance with state rules, the funding can be withheld. This is our money, but we are dependent upon a state legislature with a complex and far-from-transparent allocation method for school funding.

Anyone attending Orcas School Board meetings can observe the acumen, diligence and consideration of the Superintendent, Board Directors, and Principals as they go through the budget and program planning process. While they may disagree and sometimes present oppositional viewpoints, they work towards an outcome that is for the good of the school – the children, the teachers and staff, and the community. The object of their work is not to “win” a certain policy or viewpoint, but to deliver the best, given the circumstances.

As Board Member Tony Ghazel said, “With a $667,000 deficit, everyone’s going to be hurt, in every department.”

Dr. Jerry Jenkins, Superintendent of the Education Service District that oversees Orcas Island’s public schools, said last week, “This year is different… the legislature and enrollment growth had provided district the means to cover some of their increased local cost increases in the past… We don’t see any new opportunities available to cover the increased costs without now cutting deeply into instructional programs. … Early indications are many districts are looking deeply at extracurricular and hoping to cover most of their staff reductions with attrition, but some RIFs are inevitable.”

We must pursue new opportunities, hard though they may be to see. For example, District Administrative Assistant Sharron Mierau brought up the possibility of increased revenue through school facilities’ rental fees.

We must consider cuts to all programs, and not just instructional programs. Extracurricular programs are not a sacred cow. What are the costs of administrative items such as travel and inservices? Could they be reduced?

In Ken Burns’ recent World War II documentary, “The War,” the point was made that as long as everyone shares in the sacrifice, individual constituencies are willing to pony up.

So a hard look needs to be taken at all factors of public education, obscure and complex though they may be. Actual budget figures for this year, from September to March, should be scrutinized before completing projections for next year. A willingness to consider every option may in fact make apparent where money can be better spent, and where sacrifice may make the Orcas Island School District better.

While the Superintendent, Principals and Board hammer out the best school program recommendations possible, and the PTSA looks forward to a school Open House on May 18, the OIEF again reaches out for community support, and the District’s community partners contribute to our children’s education, the rest of us should consider how we can best support our public schools.

We must continue to do our best by them, look closely at the past record and avoid pointing fingers at each others’ separate interests, but instead look forward to supporting those who are doing their utmost to deliver the biggest bang for our buck.