Camas School District: $8 million projected budget deficit, ‘layoffs are coming’

Camas School District leaders have been very public for the past year that the new state funding model would have draconian budget effects

Editor’s note: This story and photos produced and published previously by Lacamas Magazine. Published by ClarkCountyToday.com with permission from Lacamas Magazine.

CAMAS — The lingering effects of the McCleary legislation and subsequent “fix” are leaving school districts across the state with massive budget deficits, and Camas is no exception.

Photo courtesy of Lacamas Magazine
Photo courtesy of Lacamas Magazine

Camas School District (CSD) leaders have been very public for the past year that the new state funding model would have draconian budget effects, and CSD Superintendent Jeff Snell reports the district is officially grappling with an $8 million shortfall in the upcoming 2019-20 school year.

“An $8 million deficit is the reality,” said Snell. “Layoffs are coming. There has to be a reduction in force, there’s no way around it. We will send notices out on May 15 for certificated staff, and June 1 for classified staff. Sometimes you have to over-inform people that they may not have a job.”

Snell wishes this wasn’t the case, and regrets having to layoff valuable employees.

“This is just the model that we’re in because of the timing of the Legislature,” said Snell.

To deal with the upcoming shortfall, CSD is taking several actions now, which include tightening the belt, and organizing a community-based budget committee.

Tightening the belt measures:

  • Reduced non-staff budgets (supplies) by 3 percent.
  • One-year contracts for any new district employee hires.
  • Cabinet raises start mid-year.

Critics say more needs to be done before laying off teachers and staff. The budget committee meets regularly to work out considerations which will be presented to Snell at the end of April. Snell will then review those considerations, and make recommendations to the School Board.

Camas Superintendent, Jeff Snell, discusses legislative updates. Photo courtesy of Lacamas Magazine
Camas Superintendent, Jeff Snell, discusses legislative updates. Photo courtesy of Lacamas Magazine

“They’ve been working hard and report to the School Board about progress,” said Snell.

“These seem like logical steps to take when facing tough budget decisions and are areas that do not impact student learning,” said Shelley Houle, president of the Camas Education Association (CEA).

CEA will be working closely with CSD during the layoff process.

“CEA works closely with management and follows a process that is set in our current bargaining agreement,” said Houle. “Ultimately CSD makes the final decisions, but CEA makes sure the process is followed.”

So, what is that process?

“There is a seniority factor found on page 39 of our contract,” said Houle. “The first step, though, is for the board to adopt a reduced educational program. Then there are steps to make sure that remaining positions will be filled by educators with the proper certifications, endorsements, and/or licenses. This section is quite detailed, but must be decided before looking at seniority. Then at the top is seniority in Washington State, followed by Camas School District, and then years in the profession. Following that is credits earned beyond BA or MA, flexibility of certification, and then lottery.”

During bargaining sessions last summer, lead CEA negotiator Mark Gardner dismissed talks of layoffs, claiming they were district scare tactics aimed at denying teachers the full promise of McCleary.

So, should CEA have settled for the 4 percent raises offered early in the negotiations? Is CSD misinterpreting the law?

“2019-20 was projected to be a dip year when levy changes were being felt the most and districts are planning on how to manage that,” said Houle. “McCleary significantly increased public education funding including money for compensation. The state was not doing its paramount duty. Legislation passed that greatly changed the structure of funding. I wouldn’t call it a misinterpretation. Districts must now restructure and reprioritize based on the new model.”

Camas Education Association at their general membership meeting in August 2018. Photo courtesy of Lacamas Magazine
Camas Education Association at their general membership meeting in August 2018. Photo courtesy of Lacamas Magazine

If the new model ends up laying off teachers all over the state how is that helping things?

“I can’t make a hindsight decision on our negotiations,” said Houle. “We bargained on the current conditions for the increased funding that McCleary provided. The state had failed in its paramount duty which included compensation. With a new model comes a shift in how money is spent. We have a teacher shortage in our state and country. With increased compensation comes better recruitment and retainment. But first, budget decisions have to be made. We hate to see any reductions in staff because we value our colleagues and the important work they do every day for students.”

So, knowing the new model would result in layoffs, of which they were very transparent, why did CSD agree to last year’s CEA settlement?

“There were very strong political forces at play, financials in a new model, and we were still trying to understand the impact of the new model,” said Snell. “There was a massive infusion of cash and as those come out you try to come up with solutions that are going to work. And, we felt it was our job to get classes started on time. Teachers needed to be teaching.”

“These are the realities. When you look across the landscape, our raises were consistent with other districts. You have to have a workforce that’s competitive and is compensated fairly. We feel like we have a great staff, but we also have this big conundrum we’re trying to work through. Trying to be very thoughtful about the entire problem. We’re doing the best we can with what we’ve been given. Because the models change, either the Legislature has to do things differently, or we have to make major cuts.”

Camas School Board at a recent meeting. Photo courtesy of Lacamas Magazine
Camas School Board at a recent meeting. Photo courtesy of Lacamas Magazine

He said the process doesn’t just happen with one decision point.

“It’s an incredibly complex new funding model, and it took several months to really understand it,” said Snell. “I care about our schools and staff and I want the best for everyone there. I try to be as transparent as possible, and that’s why we started the budget committee. You walk this fine line of is that it’s so complex it’s really hard to explain.”

Sen. Ann Rivers said the problem with the legislation is that it put all the money out in one lump sum.

“When we agreed to the bill it was meant to release the funds over time, in a more gradual way, but they changed it at the last minute, and all these billions went out at once,” said Rivers. “It was like dragging a doughnut through a fat farm! Everyone wanted a part of it, and suddenly the Washington Education Association (WEA) started talking about 25 percent raises — and it wasn’t true.”

Rivers said once the unions put that out about 25 percent raises, it galvanized their membership, and pushed them to issue strike threats.

“The WEA misled their teachers, the public, and some school districts felt like they were extorted — forced to give teachers raises they knew they couldn’t afford.”

Did Snell feel like he was extorted?

He said no.

“I have a role to try to find balance and see our workforce costs and compare them to what we need to offer,” he said.

And, Snell also discussed the complexities of budgets in this new funding model.

“Budgets in public schools are very challenging because you don’t know what the revenue is from the Legislature,” said Snell. “We can see right now there are all kinds of bills out there that can change things. There are changes but it’s within a similar structure. The challenge has led to confusion and different interpretations and you see negotiations that are really challenging. You have a Legislature that is still wrestling with this.”

Did the McCleary legislation unintentionally create more harm than good?

Eric Engebretson, president of the Washougal Association of Teachers (WAE) said the Washington Education Association (WEA) played a key role in pushing the Supreme Court decision and in lobbying for the legislation that is causing today’s havoc.

“The legislation had good intent, but it also has a mixed message,” said Engebretson. “It’s not as clear as we would have liked to have seen. It’s tied the districts hands in some ways, it’s tied the union’s hands in some ways … some think it’s pass-through money and others say they can do what they want so we hope that everything gets revisited soon …”

Snell said the teachers’ unions are about taking care of the teachers.

“If you have a union that’s responsible for wages for your group, then you need to change the model for more capacity,” said Snell. “The WEA forced the system to change the model. They created a crisis in the system that then prompts increased funding, that’s what the McCleary decision did, and so it disrupted this system and created a new system. I don’t know if WEA is worried about the system. They care about their teachers. The WEA is in charge right now. I understand there are forces at play with different interests.”

Snell calls it a conundrum.

“Raises caused this problem, but raises also retain amazing staff members,” said Snell. “Here we are. There’s a deficit. We’re trying to make good decisions. Good decisions are always challenging.”

Houle said, “The WEA’s mission is to strengthen public schools. And yes, the legislators need to continue fixing the law and decrease the havoc!”

Camas High School 2018 Graduation ceremony. Photo courtesy of Lacamas Magazine
Camas High School 2018 Graduation ceremony. Photo courtesy of Lacamas Magazine

Can this be resolved before layoffs happen?

Eighty-six percent of the CSD budget is personnel, and with the need to cut $8 million during the next school year, it’s likely dozens of teachers and staff will be laid off — if nothing changes.

“The legislature is listening. They talk about levy, about special education funding, and increasing that to help balance things,” said Snell. “The Governor’s budget has relief for us, but that’s just one component. What are the changes to the model for the 2019 year? We don’t know.”

Houle spent a recent day in Olympia.

“I am meeting with other WEA political action committee board members for a legislative update and for more training,” said Houle. “I was up there on Presidents’ Day lobbying and will be doing so again later this month. All in all, we want schools to remain a safe place for our students to learn. CEA will continue to lobby for increased special education funding, levy flexibility, and increased funding for safety (counselors, nurses, etc).”

With layoffs looming, was it right for the School Board to give Snell a 5 percent raise?

The school board approached Snell with a 5 percent raise offer, from December on.

“In my mind, it’s 3.1 percent because it started mid-year,” said Snell. “I have a $163,000 base salary. It’s an important job.”

What’s next?

Snell said the district leadership will be working closely with union leadership and talking to them about the process, and trying to be as transparent as possible knowing that it impacts the CSD fund balance. He said it’s essential to start to change the model, and that expenditures need to line up with income.

“What happens next is the committee develops considerations for me, and I will develop a budget and present it the school board,” said Snell. “This will happen at the end of April with the Legislature and we’ll then do our best guess to speculate what the Legislature will do, and then we’ll formally adopt it in August. Before all that, we have contractual obligations and we have notification dates for employees.”

“Non-personnel cuts includes supplies, travel, utilities, gas, buses, contracted services through special education,” said Snell. “There’s a lot there. We would probably look at a percent applied to those things. We need to realize savings to those costs. Look at extracurricular expenses, which are paid through levy and student fees. Do we hold those? In the short term, I don’t want to make decisions that remove programs. Our desire is to maintain programming. In year two or three if you see the revenue is not coming then you might have to reduce programming. Regarding buses, we try to keep on depreciation cycle because we get funds from the state.”

Story and photos provided courtesy of Lacamas Magazine.

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