Blaine superintendent outlines schools’ needs

Published on Wed, Jan 18, 2012
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The Northern Light sat down with Blaine school district superintendent to talk about the upcoming bond and levy measures appearing on the February 14 ballot and what the district's budget situation is.

The Northern Light: How will we offset future reductions in revenue from the state?

Ron Spanjer: We are anticipating additional reduction on state allocations to school districts this coming budget year as the legislature grapples with a $2 billion gap in revenue. When the reduction occurs, it will represent the fifth consecutive year that the Blaine school district will have to look at options for program adjustments cuts in response to declining state revenue. The options available to local districts are limited. We can either continue to reduce and/or eliminate valuable programs, or look to our local taxpayers for increased levy support. Overall, we have had to deal with a $2 million reduction in state funding over the five years.

TNL: Why have we not had to cut deeper into programs with prior state revenue cuts?

Spanjer: We have been very fortunate to be able to work with a relatively healthy reserve to help offset some of the reductions in program that would have otherwise had to occur. Over the past five years we have sustained programs in music and the arts, libraries, and counseling at levels exceeding many of the other school districts in Whatcom County. Thanks in large part to the generous support of our parents and patrons, we continue to have a unique set of program opportunities for students in the Blaine school district, and are striving to assure that these opportunities are sustained into the future.
Each year for the last five years we have not allowed the reserve to drop below 5 percent.

TNL: Will a higher (larger revenue) Maintenance and Operations levy assure for sustaining all existing programs in the 2012-13 school year?

Spanjer: We have now reached the board-prescribed 5 percent reserve minimum and are left with determining the extent to which the anticipated gap in state revenue will be offset by additional program cuts, or new local revenue. The answer to the challenge will ultimately rest with some degree of each (program reductions and new revenue) coming into play, as even full approval of the levy will not likely be sufficient to cover all programs currently in place.

TNL: The district has managed to maintain a healthy arts and music program compared to other school districts. How have you
managed that and will the M&O levy enable you to maintain this level of support?

Spanjer: First off, we consider these programs to be core academic programs. We are fortunate in that we are able to achieve an economy of scale due to our single campus. Our middle and high school programs  share the same facilities and the same professional resources. Other districts aren’t able to duplicate that having, as they do, separate schools. In this economy we have tried to keep programs in place.

TNL: Is this the right time to place two measures on the same ballot?

Spanjer: The four-year maintenance and operations levy must be run at this time. This is a replacement levy, which in 2012 represents $5.4 million in program revenue. Without this funding the overall program would be severely impacted. As for the bond initiative, it would cost the school district $50,000 to run the measure independently of other school districts. We believe that factor and the relatively strong voter response on the bond vote in April creates a compelling argument for running the bond at the same time as the M&O levy.

TNL: The district has had two previous bond initiatives fail by a very slim margin, one for $40 million in 2008 and one for $32 million in 2010. Why have you scaled back so drastically? How compelling is the need for the reduced bond?

Spanjer: We have scaled the bond proposal back to that portion (science building $2.4 million) of the high school work that can be completed in isolation from the overall upgrade ($28.5 million of the April 2011 bond initiative).
Being separate from the rest of the upgrades means we can still complete it in an economical manner. This (science building and specifically, the lab space) has been a long-term goal and sits near the top of the overall priority list, specific to instructional program needs.

Spanjer: The balance of the items in the $3 million total also represent urgent needs, specifically the special education life skills program space  on two campuses. Some of these kids are very needy and require a lot of assistance on achieving their life skill needs. Right now they are in a converted locker space adjacent to the middle school gym. We can do better for these kids and their needs. These improvements represent $250,000-$300,000 of the bond initiative. It will result in a more conducive environment..

Another reason for the scaled-down request is that we wanted to be able to pay it off in a reasonable length of time. The bond can be paid off by 2016, along with existing bond debt.

TNL: How quickly can the science facility project be completed?

Spanjer: Detailed planning would commence immediately, with full completion of the facility occurring not later than August of 2013.

TNL: How will the tax rates for the Blaine school district compare to other districts in Whatcom County? What accounts for the difference in rates between this and the other districts?

Spanjer: The school property tax rates (local school district generated taxes) remain very favorable in comparison to other school districts in Whatcom County, in some cases totaling less than half of the tax rate assessed in other school districts. This has been a consistent factor over an extended number of years. The competitive overall rate is a result of a strong balance of residential and commercial property in the Blaine school district, especially the fact that BP Cherry Point represents in excess of 24 percent of the overall property valuation in the district.

TNL: How can people gain more firsthand knowledge of the existing facilities as well as the proposed work?

Spanjer: There is a considerable amount of information available on the Blaine school district website. We will be conducting tours of the science facility for interested patrons on January 24 at 5:30 p.m. (rescheduled from January 17 due to inclement weather). Those with specific questions may call the school district office at 332-5881, and leave a message for the business manager or superintendent.

TNL: How confident are you that the voters will approve both of these measures?

Spanjer: I am very confident. People take a lot of pride in the schools. People talk positively about the school district.