Evergreen School District to furlough 475 classified employees

The cuts are being made as the district prepares for a drop in enrollment due to online-only learning at the start of the year

VANCOUVER — A total of 475 classified employees with Evergreen School District have been informed they will be furloughed for at least the first part of the upcoming school year.

The move impacts bus drivers, paraeducators, maintenance staff, security guards, and other non-certificated employees represented by the Public Services Employees Large Group, which is part of the Service Employees International Union 1948. The union represents 1,115 staff members in the district, including a number of part-time employees.

The Evergreen Public Schools administrative office building. File photo
The Evergreen Public Schools administrative office building. File photo

District Superintendent Mike Merlino announced the furloughs during a meeting of the Evergreen School District Board of Directors meeting on Tuesday, calling it a “terrible day.”

“One of the reasons we furloughed staff, as opposed to laying off staff, is having the ability to pivot as we need, if we need to bring people back,” said Merlino, adding that at least 60 bus drivers would likely be needed once students start returning to buildings in the future.

The furlough designation will allow employees to retain access to healthcare, so long as they continue to pay their premium contributions, said Merlino. They will be able to apply for unemployment benefits in the meantime.

The county’s largest school district, with approximately 25,000 students, is beginning the new school year fully online Sept. 1, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Once the district is allowed to move to a hybrid model, with students returning to classes up to two days a week, Merlino said the hope is to begin bringing the classified employees back.

“There’s no question, we want to bring as many of our folks back as quickly as we possibly can,” said Merlino.

Evergreen School District Superintendent Mike Merlino. Photo courtesy Evergreen School District
Evergreen School District Superintendent Mike Merlino. Photo courtesy Evergreen School District

Merlino did not detail on Tuesday how much the furloughs are expected to save the district. The board unanimously approved a new $390,720,597 general fund budget, which state law required them to do before the start of the new school year. 

That budget included a forecasted enrollment decline of 2.7 percent, though Merlino said there is fear the losses could be much steeper.

“The things that are making districts nervous right now are the kindergarten numbers that we see enrolling, and the numbers of families that we’ve gotten requests from to potentially homeschool,” Merlino told the board. He later noted that many parents had withdrawn those requests after seeing the Distance Learning 2.0 plan put forward by the district.

Merlino added that Evergreen could lose between $7-10 million in transportation funding as well, and won’t be receiving nearly as much food services revenue with students not buying lunches.

Merlino acknowledged the furloughs and the budget process leave something to be desired this year when it comes to transparency for the public.

“It’s very difficult to be transparent with your community, particularly when every day that you wait to make a decision is one less day that you might be able to save money and save other reductions in the future,” he told the board.

Asked if any certificated teaching positions could be on the chopping block this year, Merlino said, “our teachers have contracts for the rest of the school year, so there wouldn’t be any laid off due to enrollment declines.”

He made no promises about next year, however. 

Aside from local impacts, Merlino noted, the state is forecasting a budget shortfall of nearly $9 billion related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the shutdown of businesses last March.

Merlino said districts across the state anticipated that Gov. Jay Inslee would call the legislature into a special session to address the budget shortfall, and give more clarity on potential cuts to basic education.

“They ended up not having a special session, so we’re kind of left to just see what’s going to happen,” Merlino told the board.