Washougal School District to tap its reserves, hike levy

$45.8M budget to depend on 48-cent M&O increase, $835, 807 in reserve funds

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Washougal High School students head for the buses after the first day of the 2018-19 school year on Friday, Sept. 7, 2018. The Washougal School Board is expected to adopt a proposed $45.8 million budget for the 2019-20 school year during its Aug. 27 meeting. (Post-Record file photo)

The Washougal School District (WSD) is balancing its budget for the 2019-20 school year by increasing its maintenance and operations levy, identifying spending efficiencies and using more than $800,000 of reserve funds.

The district’s $45.8 million 2019-20 budget, presented to school board members during their Aug. 13 meeting, is expected to be adopted at the board’s Aug. 27 meeting.

“We’re making our resources count,” WSD finance director Kris Grindy said during the Aug. 13 meeting. “That’s our promise to our students, employees, the board and the community stakeholders. We’re taking steps to maintain our programs for our students and maintain our excellent staff.”

Earlier this year, the Washington State Legislature raised the cap on local school levies to $2.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value from the lawmakers’ previous $1.50 per $1,000 cap. WSD administrators plan to increase the district’s 2020 maintenance and operations levy by 48 cents to $1.98 per $1,000.

“This wasn’t an easy decision,” WSD superintendent Mary Templeton said. “The board members determined and were adamant that, if we needed to ask for something above $1.50, we’d ask only for what we need to maintain our promises of seeing student achievement rise and maintaining our excellent staff members. We want to be transparent because we have a responsibility to the taxpayers.”

Washougal School Board president Cory Chase said he believes the district’s request for an increased levy “is very conserative and fiscally responsible.”

“But it’s not something that anybody in this district took lightly when we were looking at the options that were laid out for us,” Chase said. “We could’ve asked for more, and we had some pretty long conversations about what was best for our district and doing what’s right for our community and not necessarily looking at what everybody else is doing.”

Chase said he thought board members had done a good job of considering all factors and making the best of a tough situation surrounding state funding limitations on school districts’ ability to raise local levy dollars to supplement state education funds.

“The next couple of years obviously aren’t going to be easy,” Chase said. “It’s going to be a challenge (with) some changes that will be made, but I think we’re on the right track.”

Templeton said district staff members have been trying to find new ways to look at how the district operates.

“When you’re faced with this challenge, it gives you a chance to ask, ‘Is there a different way to do things that we haven’t thought about?'” she said. “Doing things differently is challenging, but (the staff members) are helping us find creative ways to overcome these challenges.”

Templeton provided the Post-Record with four changes that district staff members have implemented or are considering in order to cut costs without sacrificing student achievement. Those include:

Installing milk dispensers at Gause Elementary School: This project was completed last spring. “The amount of dollars spent on garbage removal reduced significantly,” Templeton said. “We found that getting rid of milk cartons was not only environmentally responsible, but financially responsible. And the milk is delicious.”

Installing an electronic cash handling system for student lunches: “If we can eliminate the time it takes for staff members to take cash, sort it, notarize it, deposit it and send it off, they will have more time to do other things,” Templeton said.

Cross-training staff members: “All departments cycle through busy times and less busy times,” Templeton said. “If folks are cross-trained, when one department is at a high period of activity and the other is at an ebb, (staff members) can come in and help manage the workload (of the busy department) so that we don’t have to pay overtime.”

Finding other sources of revenue, such as grants: “For example, the Washougal Schools Foundation has more grants to give out than folks are applying for,” Templeton said. “We’re asking teachers to find outside partners to help pay for some things that they usually rely on our budget for.”

Templeton hopes increasing the levy and finding efficiencies will help the district rely less on deficit spending, but the 2019-20 budget calls for the district to use $835,807 from its reserve fund for the upcoming school year.

“The work of previous board members has put this district in a position unlike neighboring districts that are really struggling,” said board member Angela Hancock. “I remind people of the times that they were talking about the reserve being so high. Well, guess what? It saved the district at this point.”