$8.2M deficit looming over district

Budget committee recommends cutting staff, using reserves

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The Camas School District will face a budget deficit of $8.2 million heading into the 2019-20 school year.

The deficit is a result of the state’s “McCleary Fix,” legislation meant to satisfy a state court ruling on funding public K-12 education in a case known as “McCleary” that increases school districts’ dollars received from the state while decreasing dollars received through local levies.

With a community that has been willing to approve local levies, Camas schools thrived under the previous state education model, which often relied on local levies to supplement the state’s education dollars.

As the district’s reputation grew, more and more families moved to the Camas area specifically because of the quality of the schools.

But now the district will have to find new ways to succeed.

“If we hadn’t shifted the model, we would be in a different situation today,” Camas School District’s superintendent, Jeff Snell, said last week. “It is (frustrating), but it’s also the nature of public schools. My hope is if we do this right, as we figure out the new system, we’ll be able to start enhancing in similar ways over time. But in the first couple years it’s hard to understand where those opportunities might be.”

For the past several months, district employees and a group of community members have been trying to find ways to eliminate the deficit with minimal impact on student learning.

The 17-member budget committee recently presented Snell with the culmination of its efforts — giving the superintendent nine factors to consider when he’s building a budget to recommend to the district’s board of directors for approval in August.

As 87 percent of the district’s budget is allocated to staff salary and benefits, there was no getting around the fact that layoffs are inevitable.

“(Last) August, as we were bargaining (for new teacher contracts), we were well aware that there could be a correction at the end of the year. We weren’t surprised by (the layoffs), but that doesn’t make it easier,” said Shelley Houle, president of the local teachers union, the Camas Education Association. “I have expressed to the district that morale is not as good as it could be. People are really nervous and anxious. It’s hard. We’re all a big family.”

Currently, the district is calling for 22 certificated teachers, one administrator, six classified instructional positions and six district office positions to be eliminated.

The number of expected resignations and retirements within the district will come close to equaling the number of positions scheduled to be cut, Snell said.

“(But) it’s still hard,” he said. “Obviously (some) people are making a choice not to come back, but one-year contract people may or may not want to work with us next year, so that’s hard. Certainly at the district office/central support level, those are tough conversations with people. From a staff standpoint, we’re trying to do that as respectfully as we can. It’s somebody’s livelihood and way of life, and that’s going to change potentially.”

The budget reduction analysis scenario also proposes a series of non-staff cuts, from areas such as supplies, curriculum and extracurricular activities; and the use of $3.76 million from the reserve fund.

The budget committee utilized specific objectives, such as minimizing student and staff impact, distributing reductions across the entire district, preparing for unstable variables during the next several years and ensuring long-term financial stability for the district, to guide its process.

The committee also reviewed financial, operational, fund balance and staffing information.

The considerations, presented to Snell and the district’s board of directors at their April 15 meeting, include: using fund balance; advocating for legislation that provides suitable funding; preserving district program opportunities; preserving student access to counselors; aligning staff to the state’s school funding model; maintaining appropriate security protocols; reducing non-staff expenses; and growing the fund balance when more funding is available.

“It made sense to spread the reductions across the district to try to have student-to-staff ratios pretty consistent and to use the fund balance and spread it over two years so that if we do get more revenue from the legislative changes, we might (be able to) save some positions,” said Mary Tipton, the committee’s co-chair.

Snell, who appointed the committee members, “wanted to get a lot of smart, thoughtful people in the room to work through these things together so there’s a shared understanding.”

The committee included representatives from diverse groups, including the district’s school board, several unions, the parent-teacher association, the Camas Boosters, the Camas Educational Foundation and a citizen advisory committee.

“We had some strong opinions about how much reduction to make this year,” said Tipton, who served on the Camas school board from 2008 to 2016 and co-founded the Camas Educational Foundation. “In talking through it, we came to more of a consensus, but there were some differences of opinion. The thing that surprised me, though, (was that) it seemed everyone was looking at the big picture. There was no lobbying or (discussion) of specific interests.”

Houle said she believes there is a good chance that in two or three years the district will be back to full capacity, with more growth enrollment and a better understanding of the funding model.

“There are probably some people who are mad and angry about it. I’m more realistic,” Houle said. “I want to keep going forward. To deny it or fight against it, that’s a bad place for me to go. I think it’s better to have a place at table and work through it together. I think of it as a paradigm shift. We’re going to have to figure out how to make this work.”

District staff is trying to embrace the mindset of finding opportunities in challenges, Snell said.

“We’ll get through it,” he said. “It’s been a tough year. But we have great staff and great students and wonderful families. We have tremendous resources in terms of the schools and programs that we have here. Anytime there’s a challenge, whether it’s a fiscal challenge or a personal challenge, that’s where growth happens if you’re really thoughtful about it and try to be open to it.”