In the wake of continuing glum financial news at the state level, Joseph School District is receiving a present from Joseph school teachers - a voluntary 2 percent across-the-board pay cut to help an expected budget shortfall.

"It's a gift from the teachers to the students of this district," said superintendent Rich Graham about the pay contribution, which was announced at last Tuesday's Joseph School Board meeting. "I don't know of this happening anywhere else."

During the same meeting, the district confirmed that it would ask voters to approve a three-year local option property tax measure in the amount of $1.25 per $1,000 valuation that would raise approximately $242,000 per year. A $1.50 per $1,000 five-year levy amount was defeated at the polls in November. This time, instead of a vague need to support school operations, exactly what the levy will pay for is being spelled out ahead of time: a full-day kindergarten and partial restoration of music, art and agriculture programs in the schools.

"This levy is huge," said Graham. "Without it we will be forced to cut the budget by $316,000. With it we'll be able to put back much of it."

Graham said that the levy amounts to about what the proposed consolidation with Enterprise school district would have cost, "but go entirely to support the Joseph School District."

Calculated on expected funding of $2,108,000 without the levy, $316,000 of recommended cuts include the elimination of a maintenance position, a special education aide, reduction of kindergarten from a full to a half day, making agriculture a half time program, eliminating music instruction in all grades, and cutting art to three periods. The equivalent of two teacher positions in both the elementary and high schools would be axed.

The position of Joseph Elementary Principal Ronda Shirley will be cut to half time, and she would teach calculus classes for Joseph, Enterprise and Wallowa high schools.

The teacher pay cuts amount to $20,000, with another $24,315 already chopped from the budget through 20 percent voluntary salary cuts by the coaches and other reductions in the sports program.

Some of the budget cuts - including the "gift" from Joseph teachers - will remain in place even if the levy passes.

Graham admits that he is recommending only minimum cuts at this time, even with faith in state school funding pretty much eroded. Last year's budget started at about $2.5 million before state budget shortfalls chopped it away. The school district is expecting that its enrollment of 280 students will remain steady next year, though it is substantially below the enrollment of 414 just six years ago.

The school board has showed its faith in Graham, a veteran administrator from Washington State serving his second year as Joseph superintendent, by offering him a new three-year contract. Graham said he is accepting the contract offer.A "key communicator" meeting of community members is being held at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 20, at the Joseph High School cafeteria so that information can be exchanged between the school district and the community. The budget is expected to be one of the topics to be on the table. The public is encouraged to attend.

Fifty percent of the registered voters must vote in the school levy election for it to have any chance of passing.

"This levy is very, very important to the school district," said Graham.

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