In the wake of a budget cycle that will cut $6 million — about 5% of the Camas School District’s overall budget — during the 2023-24 school year, Camas school officials say they want to help community members better understand the complexities of Washington’s K-12 school funding.
“Budgeting and school financing is very complicated and hard to understand,” Camas School Board member Tracey Malone said during the Board’s meeting on Monday, Feb. 27. “It takes a long time to understand the funding model.”
The school district is planning to host a virtual “Budget 101” town hall at 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 8, to help community members learn more about the school district’s various revenue sources and expenditures.
“There is this idea that we’re in this cycle of budget cuts because we have fat in the system,” Camas School Board member Conniee Hennessey said Monday. “But we don’t have fat in the system. We’re short-staffed in a lot of areas … so it’s digging deeper to figure out how to streamline expenses and best serve kids with this shrinking pool of money we’re getting in Camas.”
The CSD Superintendent’s Budget Committee is slated to meet again March 16, and Superintendent John Anzalone said Monday he could bring budget cut recommendations to the school board as early as March 27.
“The bottom line is that our expenditures have outpaced our revenues,” CSD Director of Business Service Jasen McEathron said Monday.
The school district experienced a sharp decrease in enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic and, while enrollment is slowly climbing again, McEathron said the district’s projected full-time equivalent (FTE) enrollment of 6,300 is still lower than it was in 2019, before the pandemic.
“At four years out, we’re still not at that pre-COVID level,” McEathron said of the district’s enrollment, which dictates the per-student revenues the school district receives from the state.
The district had been growing its enrollment by about 2% per year over the past 20 years, McEathron said, but that rate had started to slow even before the pandemic caused many families to reconsider public schooling for their students.
“We all see developments in the area, but birth rates are down and affordability in Camas is pretty tough,” McEathron said. “It’s tough for families to move (to Camas).”
The school district was able to avoid massive budget cuts throughout the pandemic thanks to COVID-relief funds from the federal and state governments, McEathron added.
“COVID relief monies helped us float our operational costs over that time,” he said Monday.
Then, in 2022, the school board made a plan to balance the district’s budget within four years. The Board approved the use of $8 million from the school district’s general fund balance over the next three school years — $5.1 million in 2022-23, $1.4 million in 2023-24, and $1.5 million in 2024-25; said they would cut $6 million from the 2023-24 budget; and looked for cost-containment measures that would help stave off more budget cuts in 2024-25 and 2025-26.
“We’re drawing down our fund balance now to maintain student programming and minimize the impacts of cuts or cost reductions,” McEathron said Monday. “There is a great deal of focus on our budget cuts right now, but I don’t want it to overshadow our commitment of $8 million in fund balance … It really cushions our student programs and gives us a runway to adjust and make some decisions and hold out hope for this legislative session. If (the school board) didn’t commit those additional funds, we wouldn’t have been able to do that.”
Spending $8 million in fund balance reserves means the school district will have a projected fund balance that is close to its minimum recommended fund balance of $8 million by the 2024-25 school year.
McEathron explained Monday that the district needs a bare minimum of about $6 million in reserves just to pay its bills during the year, when revenues can ebb and flow every month, but that budget committee members and the school board had decided they wanted to also have a small cushion of money over that $6 million to deal with unexpected costs.
McEathron added that most of Camas’ “peer districts” in Washington state had fund balances of about 13% at the end of the 2021-22 school year, while many neighboring school districts “are in the 8% to 10%” range.
Several Camas school leaders — including McEathron and Camas School Board President Corey McEnry — said Monday they were disheartened by the current legislature’s school funding plan.
“I was really disappointed in how our legislature is coming through on education,” McEnry said Monday, adding that, although a recent report by the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) showed the state needs to invest $800 million into special education over the next biennium, the current legislature’s least conservative funding model calls for a $500 million to $600 million investment in special education over the next four years.
“The message is that help is not (coming) from the legislature, and it’s very frustrating,” McEnry said. “Our district is 80 percent funded by the state, so it’s not great for anyone, really.”
“When the McCleary legislation (which changed the state’s school funding model) took effect in 2018, the state had 51 to 52 percent of (its) budget going to public education,” McEnry said Monday. “Since 2018, as the state budget has grown, education (funding) has not kept pace, with 42 to 43 percent of the (state’s) budget now designated towards basic education.”
McEnry pointed out that, when he hears people say the United States should mimic Finland’s successful education model, he wants them to know that Finland invests 7.7% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on education, while the state of Washington invests about 3.1% of its GDP in public education.
“So, if we want to be like Finland, we have to more than double our investment into education,” McEnry said.
The school board president added that there are several ideas “floating around in committee” in the state legislature right now that also could negatively impact school districts’ finances.”
“There are policy changes (under consideration) that are unfunded,” McEnry said. “Like upping the amount of time for recess. We’re all for that, but if the legislature really thinks that is a priority, they need to fund it.”
The school board president urged community members interested in legislative issues attend an upcoming town hall with representatives from the 17th Legislative District. State Sen. Lynda Wilson, along with state Reps. Paul Harris and Kevin Waters, will meet with constituents at a town hall set for 10 to 11 a.m. Saturday, March 18, at the Port of Camas-Washougal conference room, 24 “A” St., Washougal, and from 1 to 2 p.m. Saturday, March 18, at the Hegewald Center, 710 S.W. Rock Creek Dr., Stevenson.
“That would be a great opportunity to (find out) what they’re doing to support the (school) districts,” McEnry said.
McEathron said he does not foresee unexpected revenues from the state.
“The legislature was very forward last year in saying, ‘You’re not getting any more stabilization money next year,'” McEathron said Monday. “The state has told school districts, ‘You have to adjust your new normal.'”
The business services director said the Camas School District is trying to find that “new normal” and get to a point where it has a balanced budget by the 2025-26 school year.
“This is something we’ve struggled with over the past few years – what is our new normal post-COVID or post-McCleary? But I feel we’re getting there.”
School board members acknowledged Monday that the budget process will be challenging.
“We’ve spent many sleepless nights pouring over spreadsheets and looking at (budget) models, and hopefully we can come up with a solution that is sustainable and good for our kids,” Hennessey said.
The district’s “Budget 101” meeting, set for 6 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 8, will include time for questions. To join the Zoom meeting, visit camas-wednet-edu.zoom.us/j/86276462484.