North Clackamas School District finances, as in Gladstone and Oregon City, are looking much better, but there’s still a long way to go if state lawmakers want to achieve their own goals for the education system, Superintendent Matt Utterback announced last week.

Restoring three additional student instructional days would allow the NCSD to meet the 990 hours required at the district’s high schools, but Utterback’s proposed budget still had to keep in place two student days and one teacher’s workday as furloughs. Concord Elementary School, by closing with a June 3 event from 6 to 8 p.m. to hear community stories from its 150-year history, will create annual savings of approximately $450,000.

NCSD tax revenues peaked in the in 2008-09 school year at $151.5 million, and since then the district has had to cut 250 positions valued at more than $23 million. Utterback sees state revenues finally surpassing funding levels from five years ago as “a significant milestone,” but “there is much that remains uncertain” beyond the next school year. After enrollment peaked then at 17,728 students, NCSD enrollment is down 7 percent to 16,512 students.

“For the first time in six years, we can look to the future with optimism,” Utterback said. “With increased funding, we can continue to build on the excellent education we provide our students. Our district employees deserve our deepest appreciation as they continue to provide unfaltering support to our students despite increases in workload and expectations.”

Challenges remain

Although NCSD’s 2014-15 general-fund budget is projected at $162.7 million, which includes rolling over $9.7 million from 2013-14, state and local regulatory measures require that the district keep that approximately 5 percent ending fund balance in place.

Adding to the financial crunch are Public Employees Retirement System expenses continuing to increase significantly. Health-insurance costs increased by 3 percent for the North Clackamas Plans and 4 percent for the Kaiser Plan.

Given the austerity measures put in place, Utterback projects that the district’s average class sizes will decrease by one student during the next school year. To achieve that goal with a predicted 250 more students due to enrollment growth and open enrollment, he plans that the district will hire 24 teachers, in addition to the 10 full-time-equivalent teachers added for the current school year. Among the numerous “significant investments” that the district can now make: All NCSD employees are set to receive the equivalent of a 1 percent cost-of-living adjustment.

NCSD is now able to set aside $650,000 for math curriculum purchases, $400,000 in technology replacement funding and about $100,000 to purchase 12 new school buses.

Utterback believes the district’s financial picture will continue to improve, but state legislators still need to determine what funding level will serve as the basis for the start of the 2015-2017 educational-funding debate.

“The answer to this question will be essential to increasing state funding long-term,” Utterback said. “In addition, our state leaders will also need to wrestle with how to fund full-day kindergarten beginning in 2015. Additional state revenue will be needed to address this state goal.”

NCSD’s preparation this year for full-day kindergarten implementation in two years includes funding two full-day kindergarten pilots and adding a second kindergarten class at El Puente Elementary School.

Setting future course

Budget Committee and School Board members began sending district officials their questions and comments about the budget Tuesday, May 20, after Utterback presented his budget message that night. Members of the public have until the next Budget Committee meeting Tuesday, June 3, to send more feedback, and then they can testify in front of School Board members before their final approval of a plan June 26. Utterback promised that NCSD administrators would get answers to those questions out as soon as possible, but no serious issues or concerns have been raised so far.

However, much work remains for the district, Utterback noted. NCSD can now create its own special education testing and evaluation center, designed for children from birth through high school, with the transfer of $900,000 from the Clackamas Educational Service District. It will be expanding the bilingual program at Alder Creek Middle School and hiring a part-time dean of students at New Urban High School.

School Board members are also planning a capital construction bond in November 2016 to address seismic issues, facility improvements and over $40 million in deferred maintenance. It’s not expected to increase the tax rate for district homeowners.

As they examine the sale or leasing of surplus district property and address stagnant employee compensation, Utterback hopes to build a variety of learning paths and school options to accommodate the diverse needs of students and to enhance student retention and enrollment growth.

“As we look to the future, we must continue to examine and implement financial systems and practices that will build long-term financial resiliency over the next five years, while ensuring we are meeting our district mission of preparing graduates who are inspired and empowered to strengthen the quality of life in our local and global communities,” Utterback said.

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