Camas School District Superintendent John Anzalone this week provided “a high level” look at where the district might cut $6 million from its 2023-24 budget.
“We are on track to make our $6 million target, but we still have some decisions to make,” Anzalone told the Camas School Board during the Board’s workshop on Monday, March 13, adding that he expects to share more detailed budget-cut recommendations with the board members over the next couple weeks.
“This has been a thoughtful process, and I’m proud of the confidentiality we’ve tried to ensure for our staff,” Anzalone said.
The school district’s central administrative office will likely shoulder the largest share of the budget cuts – with an expected $1.77 million, or 30% of the total budget cuts, coming from the central administrative office.
The superintendent’s overview also called for $1.56 million (26% of the total budget cuts) to come from the district’s high schools; while $1.16 million (19%) and $1 million (17%) would come from the district’s middle and elementary schools, respectively. Anzalone said an additional $510,000 in cuts was still “to be determined,” but that district leaders were hoping to spare classified staff positions as much as possible.
“There may be some cuts there,” Anzalone said of the classified sector, which includes many non-teaching positions such as bus drivers, janitors, cafeteria staff and paraeducators. “The feedback I’ve received is that classified (staff have) taken the bulk of the cuts previously.”
Anzalone said the district also has had trouble filling some “highly needed” classified staff positions, such as bus drivers, so district leaders “want to be careful when it comes to making cuts to classified and other support (staff).”
District talks ‘budget 101’
The superintendent said the budget committee is set to meet again on March 16, and that the district would soon host a “ThoughtExchange,” a type of interactive, online survey, to gather feedback from the community about the proposed budget cuts.
“The ThoughtExchange will be the final feedback before we make our recommendations,” Anzalone said Monday, adding that district leaders have been trying to communicate CSD’s four-year budget plan, which calls for using more than $8 million of the district’s $18 million in reserves, making $6 million in cuts during the 2023-24 school year and containing costs as much as possible to make up for the district’s revenue shortfalls.
“We had some good feedback at the town hall (on March 8), and we’ve met with every single one of our union leaders,” Anzalone said, adding his team also has been meeting with staff at schools “to explain how we got here.”
That explanation involves several factors, Jasen McEathron, the school district’s business services director, said Monday, including decreased enrollment and increased costs.
“Enrollment is key,” McEathron said. “We have had slow growth, but it’s still not reaching pre-pandemic levels.”
The district’s full-time equivalent (FTE) enrollment numbers, which dictate how much money the school district will receive from the state of Washington, were around 7,260 in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic first shuttered schools. By June 2021, the district’s enrollment FTE had fallen to 6,782, meaning the district would receive less “per-student” revenue from the state. Meanwhile, district leaders agreed to use COVID-relief funds to help maintain its staffing levels.
“We continued our investment in staff through the pandemic,” McEathron said Monday. “We thought FTE would come back.”
Instead, the district’s enrollment rebound was slower than expected. McEathron said the district is on target to have the 6,927 FTE enrollment it expected in 2023-24, and is expected to climb closer to its pre-pandemic enrollment levels over the next several years.
The district’s actual student headcount is always higher than the FTE enrollment numbers, McEathron added, but the state’s school-funding formula is based on FTE not headcount.
“Headcount is always higher, and we are climbing back to where we were before (the pandemic),” McEathron said. “But we’re still below pre-pandemic levels. We were close to 7,500 headcount, pre-pandemic, and we’re closer to 7,100 or 7,200 kids right now.”
During an online town hall held March 8, school district leaders discussed the enrollment gap and other reasons behind the school district’s revenue shortfall.
Anzalone said the district receives about $12,000 from the state, per FTE student.
“So, every student that leaves takes a hit on our budget,” Anzalone said. “We are trying to get kids back to our district, but until we reach – and hopefully surpass – those pre-COVID numbers, enrollment will continue to be a factor in our budget.”
When a community member asked if the district knew where Camas students had gone during the pandemic, district leaders said they knew of “multiple families who have relocated across the country” and said that, while housing development is still happening within the district’s boundaries, “homes in Camas are typically single-family homes priced … in a way that may not be affordable” and that “families with younger children are struggling to buy or even rent homes in Camas.”
The district also is impacted by a change in the state’s regionalization funding model, which gave additional money to school districts located in areas with higher than average cost-of-living expenses.
“It helped to give … us money for the fact that we live in an expensive community,” Anzalone said. “The state, for a long time, was able to give us some additional funding.”
Though the Camas School District once received an additional 12% over its state funding to make up for Camas’ higher cost of living, the declining regionalization model means the state has decreased that “bonus funding” by 1%, or roughly $1 million, each year.
“We’re now at 9%, but we don’t know when that will end,” Anzalone said. “Will the 9% stay? Will it decrease? We have asked our legislators to dig into that regionalization funding model.”
The district also received $10.8 million in COVID-relief funds in 2021 and 2022, but can no longer factor those funds into its budget to make up for the drop in enrollment and its revenue shortfall revenues, Anzalone said.
“That money is running dry,” he told community members during the March 8 town hall. “Next year, that money goes away.”
Another factor influencing the budget shortfall is the fact that the Camas School District has more experienced – and therefore higher paid – teachers than many other local school districts, but the state’s funding formula does not account for this “experience factor.”
“We love and value our seasoned veterans … however, we feel like we’re being punished for that, which is just not fair,” Anzalone said. “Teachers shouldn’t have to feel guilty about the time they’ve put in. The loss of this ‘experience factor’ is hurting our bottom line. The vast majority of our certificated staff have (at least) 14 years (experience), which is wonderful for our kids.”
Anzalone said the district tried to support its staff as much as possible throughout the pandemic.
“Something I truly love about Camas is that we were supporting teachers even during the dip,” Anzalone said during the March 8 town hall. “We value every one of our staff members. As enrollment declined, we stayed the same (on staffing levels), but we’re getting to the point now where we may not be able to sustain that. And we need to be careful about how much deeper we go into … the fund balance.”
Union president: deficit talks during bargaining years ‘frustrating’
In 2022, the Camas School Board approved using $8 million from its fund balance, or reserves, in 2022-23 ($5.1 million), 2023-24 ($1.4 million) and 2024-25 ($1.5 million) to help offset budget cuts. Those figures would have left the district with a fund balance of $10.8 million — or 8.5% — in 2026-27. On Monday, the school board said it would approve taking the fund balance down to 8%, which means the district may have an additional $500,000 to help shore up its budget deficit in 2023-24 or 2024-25.
At least one union leader in the district, however, believes the district may not be going far enough with its use of its fund balance.
Marci Zabel, a special education teacher in the Camas School District and president of the Camas Education Association, the union representing the district’s teachers, said union leaders would like to see the district use money it has kept in its reserves to better meet students’ needs.
“In regards to the fund balance, keeping it at a high level keeps that money out of the classrooms,” Zabel told The Post-Record. “The state average is about 5% for fund balance.”
Zabel also said the district has been spending “below budget” over the last four years.
“They have been, historically, over budgeting and underspending,” Zabel said of the district. “Their below-budget spending has hurt us. We’ve watched colleagues take on more than they should – and our counselors and classified staff have been pretty much gutted.”
The fact that the district is bargaining with its employee groups during its “budget cut” cycle also dismays the union president.
“It is frustrating and a little disheartening that this talk of deficit always comes up when we’re in bargaining years,” Zabel said. “And we’re hearing we should freeze our COLA (cost of living adjustment), but COLA is not a pay raise. It helps us keep up … with the cost of living. We don’t feel (cutting annual COLA increases) is appropriate in any way.”
Going into the bargaining negotiations with the district this year, Zabel said the union would likely highlight the need for more classroom support.
“We are focused on special education … and SEL (social-emotional learning),” Zabel said. “Having counselors available, social workers available — those are things we will definitely be talking about.”
The need for additional classroom support, and the focus on helping students’ with not just academics but their social and emotional growth, was exacerbated by the COVID pandemic, Zabel said, and educators everywhere are feeling it.
“This is not just a Camas issue. It is a public education issue,” the union president said. “Students are stressed and anxious … consistency is our biggest need. Being able to get back to the basics and on stable ground is important.”
Though the district typically bargains with its unions in March, Zabel said district leaders have asked the unions to wait until May to begin bargaining for a new contract.
As Anzalone and other district administrators finalize their proposed $6 million in budget cuts, Zabel said union leaders are preparing for an onslaught of questions from impacted members.
“We are hoping to provide support as they wait for the final (budget cut decisions),” Zabel said.
The district is contractually obligated to notify its teachers impacted by the proposed cuts by May 15, but Anzalone said his goal is to “notify staff well before that May 15 deadline.”
Anzalone has said March is “a critical month,” with district leaders expected to bring a resolution allowing for the budget cuts to the school board on March 27, and to reach out to staff who may be losing their jobs by the end of March.