Vancouver Public Schools officials point finger of blame at legislature for budget crisis

Issue also complicated by unexpected dip in student enrollment

VANCOUVER — The budget hole facing Vancouver Public Schools continues to deepen. Even with voters approving two levies to cover maintenance and operations, as well as technology upgrades for students, the district now says it expects a $14.3 million budget shortfall for the 2019-2020 budget. That’s up from the $11.4 million expected earlier.

Vancouver teachers rally in August while on strike. Photo by Chris Brown
Vancouver teachers rally in August while on strike. Photo by Chris Brown

So what’s going on? Well the increase from the initial budget shortfall estimate is due to a decline in enrollment. The district says they’re now forecasting a drop of 458 full-time students next school year.

According to the district’s Chief Fiscal Officer Brett Blechschmidt, the enrollment dip seems to be spread across all of their schools, with Felida Elementary being the only building with a student population increase.

“Since the overall student decrease is largely due to the last several kindergarten cohorts being smaller than normal, we don’t have specific data on why more students haven’t shown up,” Blechschmidt said in a statement to “Our demographer has theorized that a greater percentage of our homes are occupied by ‘empty nest’ families, and the homes occupied by younger families are waiting longer to have children, which has been a trend of millennials.”

With median home prices and rents also climbing sharply in Vancouver over the last five years, the theory is that people moving to the area are generally older, wealthier, and more likely to either have children who are older, or else no children at all. At this point, it appears the trend of enrollment declines is likely to continue, despite an influx of new residential developments across the city.

Plenty of people have been quick to blame teachers for the district’s budget crisis. They went on strike before the start of this school year, fighting for money they said was earmarked for them from the state legislature.

According to Blechschmidt, it’s more complicated than that. Yes, wage increases given to teachers contributed to the budget problems, but he blames lawmakers in Olympia more than the unions representing educators.

Vancouver School District estimates the levy swap, which capped local levies at $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value, cost them $22.7 million in local funding. Blechschmidt says they had warned lawmakers that they should clearly stipulate how much of the additional funding was to offset that local funding loss, and how much was to fund employee compensation increases.

“Despite our warnings, our legislature failed to provide that direction or even their intentions in this complex legislation,” Blechschmidt writes. “Rather they left it to districts to try to resolve through bargaining. The pressure to settle contracts and pay fair, competitive salaries with McCleary funding that was dramatically overstated ($2 billion), when the levy swap is considered, all combined to create our deficit.”

Another part of the McCleary fix that school districts have found difficult to adapt to is a switch from budget-based local levies, to a rate-based one. Previously districts passed local levies to raise a set amount of money per year. The county assessor then set property tax rates to raise that much money.

Under the levy cap, districts now have to estimate how much they should ask for in their levy requests. Districts operate under a budget cycle based on the school year, while the state and local taxing districts are on the annual calendar. That means districts are now estimating local budgets, without knowing exactly how much they might get the following year.

The first part of the McCleary funding fix, passed in 2017, set the statewide property tax rate for basic education at $2.70 per $1,000 of assessed value. That is set to be reduced by $.30 this year, before going back up to $2.70 in 2020. In 2021 the statewide tax rate will switch to a budget-based tax, so it’s unclear at this point what the future cost will be, assuming lawmakers don’t change the law in the meantime.

Still, at present, school boards say they have to overestimate the amount of local levy dollars, in order to make sure they don’t fall short of the full $1.50 per $1,000 allowed.

While statewide funding is expected to further increase next year, the school district says costs are anticipated to rise faster than income, which could plateau or drop off after next year.

Vancouver School District Superintendent Steve Webb is still finalizing his proposal for how to balance the budget. Thus far he has proposed the following cuts:

  • Approximately $3.8 million will be generated from the 2019-20 fund balance. Because this is one-time money, that part of the shortfall must be addressed again in the 2020-21 budget.  
  • An estimated $3.9 million will come from cost savings in central administrative services staffing and program reductions.
  • Approximately $6.6 million will be generated through school-based reductions yet to be determined. Roughly half of the staffing cuts could be made through retirements and resignations.

Other levy results

With just a handful of votes left to count, Evergreen School District has enough support to feel confident their renewal school program levy, and new technology capital levy have passed. Both secured slightly more than 51.5 percent support.

La Center voters approved a replacement for their replacement educational programs and operations levy by fewer than 130 votes. That was still enough for a nearly six percent margin of victory.

Hockinson School Board has scheduled an emergency meeting and work session for next Tuesday, likely to start conversations about how to move forward after both of their proposed levies failed. One was a replacement for the maintenance and operations levy, and a capital levy for technology and school improvements also failed to gather enough support.

Despite getting nearly 59 percent support, Ridgefield School District failed to pass a $77 million building bond. Superintendent Nathan McCann says the board will meet next week to begin discussions about how to move forward. The bond would have been the third major investment by people in the fast-growing district, and would have built a new K-4 school. McCann says they’re expecting another 1,400 students in the next five years, so he expects they’ll have to come back with a new building bond sometime in the near future, but he understands why many voters felt this was a bad time to move forward on phase three of their build-out project.

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