Battle Ground Public Schools budget fraught with uncertainty

District officials plan to take less than their full local levy amount for next year

BATTLE GROUND — Perhaps the most appropriate word for Clark County school districts in 2020 is “uncertainty.’’

That sentiment pervaids budgets approved ahead of the 2020-21 school year. 

Districts have expressed optimism that Distance Learning 2.0 will improve greatly on the often chaotic and confusing experience of students and parents following the closure of school buildings last March. 

The CASEE building, home to Battle Ground Public Schools’ administrative offices. File photo
The CASEE building, home to Battle Ground Public Schools’ administrative offices. File photo

Still, many parents have expressed skepticism over the plans, and it remains unclear how many will opt to homeschool or seek other forms of education, at least until students can return to classrooms.

That level of uncertainty has districts scrambling to adjust. Evergreen School District announced this week that 475 classified employees were being furloughed, at least temporarily, to offset expected declines in enrollment and funding from other sources.

Battle Ground Public Schools’ Board of Directors also approved a budget this week, though Assistant Superintendent Shelly Whitten, who heads up the district’s Human Resources department, noted the budget is largely a formality in a year like this.

“We’re creating the groundwork to plan for a worst-case scenario,” Whitten told the board, “and we’re hoping for a better-than-worst-case scenario.”

“What you’re voting on gives us the capacity for expenditures,” noted the district’s Chief Financial Officer Meagan Hayden, “but if revenues come in less we have to make the adjustments on our spending.”

The “worst case scenario,” said Deputy Superintendent Denny Waters, would be a 10 percent drop in enrollment, which would represent more than $9 million in lost revenue from the state.

In response, the district imposed a hiring freeze in early August, and currently has at least 65 vacant positions unfilled, both in teaching staff and front office personnel.

“Those positions account for almost half of that deficit,” said Waters. “If we were to lose the enrollment we probably wouldn’t try to fill any of those positions.”

Since certificated teachers are under contract through this school year, Whitten said, they would not be subject to layoffs if more staff cuts were needed.

“We’re trying to hesitate to make decisions until we know what the enrollment is, because making those decisions are hard and they impact the entire system,” said Whitten. “So you don’t want to do them over and over again.”

Hayden noted that 73 percent of the general fund budget currently covers salary and benefits. This year’s budget includes a $7 million increase in that line item, as well as a $3 million bump for supplies and consumables.

Asked why their budget increases have greatly outpaced inflation in recent years, Hayden noted that the McLeary decision removed salary tables from the state’s funding process. Instead, districts receive approximately $72,000 per teacher from the state. Districts with more seniority in their certificated ranks have to foot the remaining amount. In Battle Ground, that adds up to around $11,000 per teacher coming from local funds.

The state also now requires districts to cover a larger portion of the cost of healthcare. In the past, if a teacher opted out of healthcare benefits from a district, their premium could be used to offset the cost of other teachers’ benefits. Now, that money is sent back to the state to be used as part of the State Employee Benefit Board (SEBB), which means local districts are footing more of the bill.

Still, for this upcoming budget, says Hayden, “it’s all about enrollment.”

A district receives approximately $9,000 per student. If that student chooses to enroll later in the school year, the district would receive a prorated amount, based on a 10-month period.

“Our budget is set based on enrollment, but if enrollment comes in less then we’re going to have to adjust our budget accordingly to how enrollment is coming in,” said Hayden.