Clark County’s largest school district is facing an estimated $18 million budget shortfall for this coming school year
VANCOUVER — NOTE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the potential number of teacher layoffs due to budget cuts in Camas. This information has been corrected.
If nothing changes between now and next school year, the central office for Evergreen School District is likely to be a lot quieter.
Interim Superintendent Mike Merlino laid out his recommendations on how to close an $18 million projected budget shortfall at Tuesday night’s Board of Directors meeting.
The anticipated $18 million budget hole is being blamed on three factors: The McCleary decision by the state legislature, a decline in student enrollment, and rising labor costs.
The best known is the legislature’s 2018 McCleary decision to fully fund basic education at the state level by capping local levies and raising the statewide property tax. The additional one-time funding in the bill kicked off a frenzy of contract negotiations by teachers unions eager to recoup what they saw as years of sacrificed raises. That has led to the higher labor cost part of the equation as districts fought to remain competitive, despite knowing the cost would be more than they had budgeted for.
Evergreen is hardly alone in this struggle. According to the Seattle Times, 253 of the state’s 295 school districts are facing budget cuts this Summer. Vancouver School District has already detailed plans to cut $14.3 million from its budget, and Camas says it expects to face an $8.2 million budget shortfall. Teachers there could learn by mid-May if they’ll still have a job next school year.
According to Merlino, a bill introduced in the state legislature that didn’t make it out of committee looked at districts across the state, and whether they would have been better off without the new state funding model. Evergreen, he said, was a district that likely would have had more funding under the old model than they do now.
“The real process is we talk about this today, we talk to the community, we see what the legislature does for us — because they’re going to do something for us, I’m certain that they will,” said Merlino. “And then, even if they get done at the end of April, our budget isn’t finalized and adopted until August.”
Merlino added that their actual budget deficit is likely to be closer to $15 million, but they’re planning for the worst case scenario.
“Part of the idea was, first of all, let’s come up with a number that’s larger so that we don’t, at the last minute, have to come up with another two or three million at the last minute, after we’ve had all these conversations,” Merlino said.
A more surprising development impacting Evergreen’s budget is an unexpected dip in enrollment. According to Merlino, they expect actual enrollment next year to be between 1,300 and 1,500 fewer students than earlier estimates.
Fewer students mean less funding from the state for teachers.
“The staff positions that go away don’t equate to the amount of revenue that you lose when you end up having enrollment reduction,” Merlino says.
A total of 1,500 fewer students would equate to around $12 million in lost state funding. Automatic staff cuts would account for around half that amount, meaning the population decline is contributing approximately $6 million to the estimated budget shortfall.
The district’s Board of Directors set a list of priorities as Merlino and his staff went into overdrive on figuring out the budget situation the past couple of weeks.
- 1 – Make student-centered decisions
- 2 – Consider the safety and security of students and staff
- 3 – Continue funding improvements in instruction through professional development training
- 4 – Maintain existing district facilities
“This, while it’s a very difficult situation, is also an opportunity to kind of reset and rethink the way we do things,” Merlino told the board, “and maybe refocus and re-prioritize some of the decisions we’ve made.”
The largest line item on the district’s list of potential budget cuts is $5,065,000 by eliminating up to 37 administrative positions, including three cabinet-level positions. Those include the assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, the chief academic accountability officer, and the chief innovation officer. A district-level athletic director position is also being cut.
Perhaps the most controversial proposed cuts are to media support specialists, although Merlino said he’s hopeful that some of those positions can be saved through further analysis of operations. “I believe that working with in particular the middle and the high schools, there may be opportunities for us to maybe save some of those positions.”
The budget also reduces 49 full-time certificated positions, saving just over $4.4 million, but Merlino says retirements and staff turnover lead to as many as 150 teachers leaving the district each year, so they’re hopeful that certificated staff reductions can be accomplished through attrition, rather than layoffs.
The district will also reduce its rainy day fund by $1.7 million to help address some of the shortfall.
“The reason you have a rainy day fund is for a rainy day,” said Merlino. “We’ve had a lot of cold and snow, it’s maybe just a little rainy right now too.”
The cuts don’t include a lot of programs or items, although elementary school field trips will likely be cut in half.
Merlino says that’s largely because 82 percent of the district’s budget is for personnel, meaning there isn’t a lot of fat to be cut when it comes to “things.”
Transparency and openness
From comments made during Tuesday’s meeting, it was clear that Merlino’s instruction as interim superintendent is to involve the public as much as possible in the budget process.
Part of that includes four open forums over the next month, starting with Thursday at 6 p.m. in the library at Heritage High School, to hear from parents and students.
“Whatever the list is, as difficult as it is, let’s talk to people about it, and let’s be honest, and let’s answer questions, and let’s do our best to communicate,” says Merlino.
The district also hopes starting the process well before the end of the current school year will give them time to see if the legislature takes action to address the problems being brought up by districts across the state.
“I think this positions us in a place where every day we get new information,” Merlino says, “we update it, and ultimately when it’s time for the board to make the call, you know we’ve done the work and we’re ready to do it.”
That transparency extends to the positions that could be on the chopping block. Merlino says they were all notified on Monday that they may need to begin searching for work this Summer. Even if they’re ultimately eliminated, most of the administrative positions would still have a job through either June or August, giving them time to look for employment elsewhere.
“I appreciate the methods by which you’ve notified these people that their livelihoods may be at risk,” said board member Rob Perkins.
“People like to think administrative is all these fat cats, you know, with their big salaries,” added Board Vice President Victoria Bradford. “There’s a lot that it takes to make this district operate … it just doesn’t happen with a couple of people and a rubber band and some duct tape.”
The cuts are similar to ones the district faced in 2009 through 2011, during the recession. This time around it’s more condensed, but Merlino says they’re trying to avoid cutting as many school programs as possible.
Bradford and several other board members expressed their appreciation for that, but also their concern that such deep cuts at the administrative level could have other impacts on support for teachers and student services.
“When we made those cuts the last time, the people that are left behind to pick up the load really do pick up the load,” said Bradford, “and it’s a lot, so I just want to acknowledge that.”