On the chopping block

College/career specialists’ jobs on the line as school district mulls more budget cuts

Faced with an ongoing budget crisis, cuts across the Seattle School District don't show signs of stopping anytime soon. For college and career specialists, it means being on the chopping block yet again.

Last year, every comprehensive high school had a college/career specialist (CCS), and there were 14 positions district-wide. This year, the main office dropped that number to 3.5 and split the remaining specialists between multiple alternative schools. The only comprehensive schools that have specialists are Ballard and Chief Sealth high schools, both of which pay for the position out of the school's discretionary budget.

Because the state Legislature has not yet determined its final budget, the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) does not know how cuts will fall this year. So far, more than 80 staff were laid off from the main office. The CCS positions were not included in that first round of cuts, which saved $6.2 million, but the budget shortfall totals $24 million, said SPS spokesperson Teresa Wippel.

The projected shortfall for next year is $26 million, though those numbers can change depending on what comes out of the state Legislature.

"We are in the midst of an extended national financial crisis, with historic state budget shortfalls and declining revenue to the school districts," Wippel said. "We expect it to continue this year and next year. We wish we could fund all valuable services students need, but it's not a reality."

At this point, the state of CCS positions remains tenuous, and even for those who have received layoff notices, Wippel said there is the possibility that SPS can bring some of those employees back.

"Counselors are very important, but classroom teachers are our first priority," Wippel said. "Sometimes, we have to look at that scenario and realistically decide what's more important: keeping a teacher in the classroom or keeping a career specialist? That's a very tough choice, and we wish we didn't have to make it."

For now, though, there will be an ongoing hiring and spending freeze, and SPS will continue to focus on increasing central-office efficiency so more money can go toward the classroom.

And for these specialists, the waiting period is nothing new. Ballard CCS Sue Higgins received her displacement letter last week because of cuts to the school's discretionary funds, but the remaining specialists still await news.

"It's on a priority list to come back, but I don't know if it will or not," Higgins said. Higgins has been in this position for 11 years and in the district for 20. "It's been devastating."

The CCS helps students navigate the myriad options for post-high school careers. From cover letters and resumes to scholarship applications or apprenticeships and post-graduate education options, College/Career Center services run the gamut to present information about all the possibilities to high school students.

"All kids need help in transition. Kids just won't be informed, won't know what their options are," said Barbara Quintana, CCS at South Lake High School and The Center School. "And we're kind of like cheerleaders for these kids: We tell them they can do it. Kids need to know they can do it and have somebody tell them about their options and support them through that process."

It may be that kind of encouragement that keeps the district's on-time graduation rate from dropping further than 63.4 percent, the 2007-2008 total.

Without any CCS in comprehensive high schools, Quintana said most students in the district are not receiving the necessary services as it is. And because the 3.5 positions are split up between various schools, quality suffers, too. Other staff members haven't assumed the services provided by CCS either, and as Higgins said, it would be "foolhardy" of the district to try to do so.

Most of the specialists have several degrees or certificates that qualify them for this position; it's not just a person handing out pamphlets, they said; for Higgins and Quintana, it's about creating relationships, too.

"I believe what students are getting is someone to listen to what they want to do, someone to help them work through how choices they make today affect the choices they can make in the future," Higgins said. "We show them ways they can go about getting to where they want to be."

With such extensive budget problems, difficult choices will be made and priorities will be set. Where these positions fall on that list should be known once the state Legislature makes its budget cuts in the next couple of weeks, so the status of CCSs will need to wait.

"For the last five years we've been put in this position of not knowing if we were going to have our jobs back or not," Quintana said. "I know it all boils down to funding, but priorities are so poor. It's not just our city; it's our society. Kids should come first, and whether it's me or somebody else, somebody should be here doing this work."[[In-content Ad]]