School district bows to public pressure

The Northshore School District says it will no longer ask taxpayers to reimburse principals and administrators for the purchase of personal technology equipment.

Woodin will remain open

The Northshore School District says it will no longer ask taxpayers to reimburse principals and administrators for the purchase of personal technology equipment.

It was a practice that received criticism in recent weeks from the Northshore teachers union, whose representatives raised concerns in the face of a proposed school closure aimed at saving around $700,000 annually.

Northshore budgeted around $132,000 last year to compensate principals and other supervisors for technology purchases while calling for $3.4 million worth of reductions in other areas.

The district most recently proposed closing Woodin Elementary and eliminating up to 53 staff positions as part of its plan to balance the 2008-09 budget. The School Board decided March 31 to keep the grade school open, at least for another year.

Dealing with perks

Northshore teachers union president Tim Brittell raised concerns about the technology reimbursement program during a School Board meeting in late March.

“When the list of cuts was made, why wasn’t that one of them?” he asked.

Northshore worked with the associations for its principals and administrators to alter the language of their collective bargaining agreements.

District spokeswoman Susan Stoltzfus said the contracts will now restrict technology purchases to work-related items.

“The School Board heard what Tim had to say, and they wanted us to be comparable to other school districts that do this,” she said.

Bellevue and Lake Washington have had reimbursement agreements in place that limit technology purchases to work-related equipment.

Previous terms of the bargaining agreements provided administrators $600 a year as “professional development funds for technology-related equipment,” while giving principals $1,500 annually for “professional growth” purposes.

“The goal was to encourage administrators to work with new technologies,” Stoltzfus said. “Many of them never use the money, and it goes back into the general fund.”

The total amount that Northshore administrators alone spent during the past two years was around $119,000.

Records show that one employee used the funds to buy a $1,400 HD television monitor. Another purchased an MP3 player, a computer and a digital camera for a combined cost of $1,800.

“I think there are people who are allowed to buy things that are not work-related, and that’s not right,” Brittell said.

The district claims to have used the technology reimbursement agreement to attract and retain quality employees.

“When you see that our folks are paid less than the average, you realize that this is done in exchange for the 16-hour days they put in, and their 24-hour availability,” Stoltzfus said. “This is a small way to compensate them for that time and encourage them to work with new technologies.”

The district uses around 6 percent of its total operating budget on administrative costs such as salaries and benefits, which is less than the state average, Stoltzfus said.

Pay for Northshore principals is generally below that of comparable districts such as Bellevue, Everett and Shoreline, according to Stoltzfus.

Woodin decision

The decision to keep Woodin open followed a recommendation from Interim Superintendent Dolores Gibbons.

“It was all about time,” Stoltzfus said. “There was not enough time for the board and the public to feel comfortable with the whole process.”

Northshore had proposed closing Woodin as part of its $3.4 million budget-reduction plan, claiming that declining enrollment, a lack of state funding and inflation have necessitated the cuts.

Northshore officials pitched the closure in February as a long-term solution, estimating that it would save the district around $700,000 a year.

But members of the Woodin community protested the recommendation at virtually every district meeting since that time, mainly expressing concern about the fate of their school’s dual-language program.

District officials are now looking for other ways to put the finishing touches on a balanced 2008-09 budget.

“If we take school closure off the table, we still have to find another $700,000,” Stoltzfus said. “We can’t cut teachers because we’re already at the state-required ratio of students to teachers. Classified staff is the only thing that’s left.

“Nobody has any magic ideas. A lot of people have ideas, but can they happen in time, and are they sustainable?”

The Northshore teachers union has questioned whether the districts financial outlook is so dire, estimating that revenues should pan out to $3 million more than they were last year.

Stoltzfus contends that this analysis fails to take into account certain complex variables that affect the flow of money within the district.

“We still believe there’s a need to close a school, and we still believe our data,” she said. “I can pretty much guarantee that every bit of our budget will be spent by Aug. 31.”