Reassignments alarm Washougal teachers

WSD administrators have asked some educators, staff members to be ‘flexible’

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Several Washougal School District (WSD) teachers and staff members have sounded the alarm over the district’s plan to reassign them to new positions during the 2023-24 school year.

“Some of the teachers that are facing involuntary moves are frustrated that they might have a different assignment for next year,” said James Bennett, the president of the Washougal Association of Educators, the union representing Washougal teachers. “It is probably our biggest concern right now — many of the involved members have lots of questions, and we have to look at how the contract deals with all of this.”

Washougal School District Superintendent Mary Templeton said that, as district leaders work on the 2023-24 school year budget, they have asked some teachers and staffers to be “flexible.”

“We value our employees, and we are investing in staff development to make sure we have highly trained staff in every classroom,” Templeton said. “We have been successful in attracting, retaining and supporting effective educators. The annual staffing process does require flexibility from our staff and creativity in how we approach supporting students and at the same time eliminate deficit spending.”

District leaders have proposed shifting “five to 10” educators into different positions next year, Bennett said, adding that the district also has “stated repeatedly that all teachers on continuing contracts that want to stay will have a job next year.”

The union president said he has “no reason to believe that it won’t be as they have described.”

“There are some assignments that are being eliminated, some being created and some being moved,” Bennett said. “For example, the district had several teachers on ‘one-year-only’ contracts, and those contracts were not renewed. Some of those positions will have other teachers on continuing contracts moved into them, and others will be eliminated.”

Leslie Gillespie, a physical education teacher at Columbia River Gorge Elementary School, is one teacher who has been asked to move into a different position in 2023-24. Gillespie, who holds an endorsement in special education, has been asked to move from physical education to special education.

Gillespie’s husband, Justin, spoke about the situation during a Washougal School Board meeting on May 23.

The special education role is one that Leslie Gillespie is qualified for, but has no interest in pursuing, Justin Gillespie said.

“Her current role will open and someone else will be reassigned to that role, resulting in a cascade of job (transfers) and frustrated, displaced teachers,” he said.

According to her husband, Leslie Gillespie would prefer to keep the physical education position she’s held for the past four years.

“She has poured her heart into the role, going above and beyond to establish herself as a competent and capable (educator) and a role model for students, and has built strong relationships with students, parents and colleagues,” Justin Gillespie said. “Her passionate efforts have positively impacted students academically, emotionally and socially. … I believe it is important to consider the personal and mental well-being of teachers and support staff, especially when they’re having a significant impact on students’ lives.”

He added that the request from the district came as a surprise considering that Washougal School District officials had led citizens to believe educator jobs were “safe and secure” after the district’s levies passed voter approval in April.

“Only two weeks after the levies passed, my wife learned that she was being transferred to another department,” Justin Gillespie said. “I, for one, believe that we need to hold the district accountable and honor the commitments made to the taxpayers who voted under these false pretenses.

“One would logically deduce that the successful passing of the levy would result in minimal to no change in staffing, and potentially even an increase in staffing,” he continued. “However, many of your employees have been negatively affected by your current proposal. … Teachers and staff are being involuntarily reassigned to jobs outside of their current scope.”

Washougal School District Assistant Superintendent Aaron Hansen said district administrators are working through the needed changes and adhering to the terms of the educators’ and staffers’ bargaining agreements.

“This does require us to have some flexibility from our staff for all permanent staff to be able to continue working for us next year,” Hansen said. “We are working closely with staff impacted by any needed changes and have let them know as early as we can so they can plan for the coming year. We have not yet completed the process, and our goal is to make sure staff know their assignment before they leave for the summer.”

Hansen said he has been meeting regularly with Bennett and Sandra Goza, Washougal’s chapter president of the Public School Employees of Washington, SEIU 1948 — the union representing the district’s classified employees — for several months to update the union leaders on enrollment forecasts and budget projections.

“Since we are still working through this process, and staff are still letting us know if they’ve made a different decision for next year, we don’t have a total number of staff impacted,” Hansen said. “This set of adjustments helps us keep consistent class and program sizes around the district, and focuses our resources on programs that are making the most impact for students. We are also making adjustments that honor the student, family, staff and community input received on the budget priorities survey in February. We are also making adjustments to administrative spending and prioritizing staffing adjustments furthest from the classroom.”

School district’s enrollment stalls, budget reflects deficit spending

The school district’s 2022-23 budget for the current school year relied on $600,000 worth of deficit spending, according to Washougal School District Finance Director Kris Grindy.

“As the cost of goods, services and staff expenses increase well above funding received by the state, we must make adjustments to live within our means while continuing to honor our obligations and staffing contracts,” Grindy said. “As good stewards of public resources, we are working closely with our labor partners to make adjustments to produce a more balanced budget.”

The district is projecting an annual average full-time enrollment of 2,689 for the 2023-24 school year, down from the 2,743 students in 2022-23.

“We have fewer students entering (the district) each year than graduating,” Grindy said. “Washougal experienced a significant growth in enrollment when families moved into the Sunset Ridge neighborhood in the early 2000s. As the last of that large wave of students graduates, our enrollment is projected to decline over the next four to five years. We will continue to monitor and adjust to any changes caused by new development, but at this point we need to adjust staffing to match the enrollment trend, which has us down about 10 percent since 2018.”

Washougal school administrators will present the proposed 2023-24 budget to the school board for approval in late August.

“Taxpayers are counting on us to prepare budgets that are balanced, and we’ve been steadily adjusting to the new reality of our student enrollment trends,” Templeton said. “The current budget continues this process while ensuring we have highly trained teachers and staff, excellent programs, innovative instruction and well-maintained and safe facilities. As we make these adjustments, we are not skimping on student achievement and focusing our resources on things that will help students reach their bright futures.”