Washougal school officials face reality of operating without levies, say 244 positions at risk

Voters shot down Washougal school levies in February; school district is running replacement levies again in April election

Washougal High School students Sam Jackson (left), Natalie Schoenborn (center) and Zach Bobeck practice their performance for the school's American Sign Language Showcase earlier this year.

Members of the Washougal High School track and field team pose for a photograph in March 2023.

Clockwise from top left: Washougal High School students Sam Jackson (left), Natalie Schoenborn (center) and Zach Bobeck practice their performance for the school's American Sign Language Showcase earlier this year; Washougal High School girls wrestling coach Heather Carver (bottom row, far right) and the Panthers celebrate after winning a sub-regional tournament championship in February 2023; Canyon Creek Middle and Cape Horn-Skye Elementary school art teacher Alice Yang helps students with their projects in early 2023; Members of the Washougal High School band perform a song during a rehearsal session in 2023.

Washougal High School girls wrestling coach Heather Carver (bottom row, far right) and the Panthers celebebrate after winning a sub-regional tournament championship in February 2023. (Contributed photos courtesy of the Washougal School District)

Washougal High School theater students pose for a photo during a rehearsal session for the school's renaissance dinner theater performance in February 2023. (Contributed photo courtesy of the Washougal School District)

The Washougal School District will be forced to reduce its operating budget by 20% and cut 244 staff positions for the 2023-24 school year if its educational programs and operations (EPO) and capital facilities and technology levies fail again in April, assistant superintendent Aaron Hansen said during a Washougal School Board meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 28.

“Eighty-five percent of our budget is staffing,” Hansen said, “so if you imagine that 20% of that budget is gone, we’re looking at (reducing) the bulk of the budget, (which is) staffing.”

The district is preparing to remove 40 teachers, counselors, and certified staff members; 44 paraeducators, custodians, bus drivers, secretaries and other classified staff members; five district administrators; and 155 coaches and club advisers from the district’s 2023-24 budget, according to Hansen.

“Looking at the impact of this list, they are numbers and positions, but they are also people,” Hansen said. “I think about (the people) in those positions, they are ‘our’ people. They’ve been committed to this community, and work hard every day to support our students, our staff and the mission of the school district.”

The district will re-run the levies, which would allow it to pay for athletics, arts, technology and other services not funded by state or federal governments, on Tuesday, April 25. Both measures failed in February, earning 47% of the vote.

“This is a strong community,” Superintendent Mary Templeton said during the Feb. 28 meeting. “A strong school (district) means a strong community. It means healthy neighbors, healthy businesses, healthy property value and healthy future citizens. And it means that we are investing in tomorrow’s leaders. I’m optimistic, as I always have been. We are in a really complex time, but we are planning and preparing to move forward.”

The district would implement a series of reductions to athletics, clubs and field trips (savings of $837,833), fine arts ($2,006,277), summer school ($44,663), preschool (279,861), behavior and student interventions ($1.9 million), professional development ($1.4 million), campus security ($188,632), operations and board set-asides ($2.2 million), and instructional student supports ($1.7 million) if the EPO levy fails again.

“Our youth need opportunities to engage in positive after-school activities,” Washougal School Board member Jim Cooper said in a news release. “The local levy is the way school districts in Washington state fund the sports and clubs that engage kids. Can you imagine what the Washougal community would be like with 1,000 teenagers hanging out after school with nothing positive to do?”

If the capital projects and technology levy fails again, the district would implement a series of reductions to technology devices ($450,000), technology staff members ($230,000), teacher and classroom technology ($170,000), and software and network infrastructure ($100,000), and postpone a variety of planned projects, including Washougal High School roof replacement ($3.6 million), security door improvement ($735,000), Americans with Disabilities Act-accessible entrances ($275,000), floor replacement ($280,000), boiler replacement ($760,000), and repairs for air conditioning and heating controls ($550,000).

The district is looking at a “hard, hard reality” if the levies fail again in April, Superintendent Mary Templeton said during the Feb. 28 meeting.

“Schools would not look the same without levy funds,” she said in the news release. “Levies pay the people on the ground at schools, teaching and supporting Washougal youth. The reality is that without levy funding, significant cuts would need to be made to school staffing, which is 85% of the budget. … Levies are important to strong schools and a strong community.”

The district is planning a series of “board listening tours” to solicit feedback from community members about the failed levies. The sessions will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, March 16; 4 to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday March 28; 4 to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 11; and 9 to 11 a.m. Friday, April 21, at locations to be determined.

The district also will host an open house to discuss the levy from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Monday, April 10, at its administrative office, located at 4855 Evergreen Way, Washougal.

“We are learning a tremendous amount through this process,” Templeton said during the Feb. 28 meeting. “It’s been a hard, hard two weeks, but we’ve leaned into that failure. As a superintendent, I dug deep. I’ve asked questions of everybody. What do I need to know? What do we need to do differently? What can we improve on? And how do we figure out a way to get to a context where we become the community that I joined five years ago that said, ‘We support schools. We support Washougal’? For me personally, I’m working to become a better communicator, a reflective superintendent, and a humble superintendent.”

During the meeting, Templeton referred to some of the responses that she’s heard from residents about why the levies failed, and attempted to clear up some “misconceptions” and “misunderstandings” that are still lingering in the community.

“We are not doing critical race theory,” Templeton said. “I thought I had communicated that, but maybe not. But what we are doing (is making sure) that every student is seen and each student can have an opportunity for a successful future. We’re going to create an environment where every kid walks in and says, ‘I belong here.’

“And as for comprehensive sexual education, the board approved (a curriculum) and we are following state law,” she continued. “The state says that it has to be comprehensive, age appropriate and medically accurate. We do have to use a curriculum that has state approval. Another piece that I think is important is that parents do have a choice on this. They get a chance to say, ‘I’m all in’ or ‘I’m not all in’ or ‘I’m partially in.’ We have families that choose certain lessons to be part of and certain lessons to not be part of.”

Templeton also stated that the proposed measures would replace the district’s current levies that expire at the end of 2023.

“This is not a new tax,” she said. “It’s a replacement levy.”

District finance director Kris Grindy also attempted to clear up some “points of confusion” during the meeting.

“(We’ve heard questions like), ‘As a tax-paying citizen, if my home value goes up 50% higher than it was the year before, are you guys going to tax me more?’ The answer is ‘No,'” she said. “The levy won’t collect more dollars than the voters approved for the tax amount. I do think that is an (important) point because I know that some of our community members are facing higher assessed valuations for their homes.”

Grindy said that district leaders have been asked if they can access “other financial solutions” in the event of a double-levy failure, “and the answer is ‘No.'”

“In the general fund, we have categorically restricted funding for special education, (for example),” she said. “We get an amount of money from the state, which says, ‘Here is your special education funding for the year.’ We can’t use it for anything else. Associated Student Body money is used by the students. The debt service fund is how we pay our mortgage. Capital projects (funds) are restricted or set aside and don’t get earmarked for certain things. The transportation vehicle fund, we can only use it only to buy buses. Even if we liquidated (all of those funds), those assets wouldn’t cover the 18% one-time hit from the levy (failure).

“And impact fees are money that we get in based on growth,” she continued. “We went through a yearlong process (to update our) capital facilities plan, and we’re very fortunate that we have enough space for all the students that we have currently with us and that we anticipate in the future, so we are not legally able to collect any more impact fees. The impact fee dollars that we do have are not movable. We can’t transfer them (to pay for) anything else except for what we collected it for.”