Washougal School District grapples with decline in enrollment

WSD leaders say 2023-24 losses could equal $300K decrease in state funding

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Gause Elementary School principal Tami Culp helps a student with her robot prototype during a robotics lesson in December 2022. Culp has assumed leadership duties for the Washougal Learning Academy after the Washougal School District eliminated the online school's principal position due to lower-than-expected enrollment. (Contributed photo courtesy of the Washougal School District)

The Washougal School District has cut several positions in response to lower-than-expected enrollment figures at the start of the 2023-24 school year.

WSD Assistant Superintendent Aaron Hansen told Washougal School Board members during their meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 24, that initial counts show the district is about 20 students short of the 2,663 students it projected when putting together its budget for the 2023-24 school year.

“The bottom line is that our September enrollment was less than we had planned,” Hansen said. “If we’re down 20 now, by the end of the school year, we’ll probably be down 30. What’s the impact of that? Well, we get about $10,000 per FTE (full-time equivalent), so that’s about $300,000 (that we’re going to be losing), and we need to make some plans to adjust.”

Most notably, the district eliminated the Washougal Learning Academy (WLA) principal position, which was held by Jason Foster, who now teaches science at Jemtegaard Middle School.

“With the end of the pandemic, there are fewer families choosing WLA, and the budget reality means we need to pare down staffing to match the number of students we are serving,” Washougal School District director of communications and technology director Les Brown told the Post-Record. “These reductions are in line with the feedback we’ve received from our community about finding ways to reduce administrative expenditures.”

The district remains “committed to the Washougal Learning Academy program,” according to Brown, and is “working to grow the program within” Gause Elementary School.

“We know that for some families, remote learning or at-home learning are a great fit for their students, and we want to provide options that work well for them,” he said. “The move to Gause lets us offer families increased flexibility. We can now offer WLA families a choice of teacher-led art, music and physical education at Gause which can complement online coursework if they are interested. We plan to continue sharing this program with our families, and hope to see it grow in the future.”

The district launched the WLA during the 2020-21 school year as a “flexible, family-friendly school with teacher-supported learning,” according to its website. Interest in the WLA peaked during the 2021-22 school year, when it attracted about 100 students, according to Foster.

“I am really enjoying the partnership we have with our WLA families,” said Gause and WLA principal Tami Culp. “The specialist time we offer is unique for an online program, and a number of our families really appreciate the opportunity to learn skills that would be difficult to cover in an online course.”

The district also cut two custodial positions at Gause and Hathaway Elementary School, and two secretarial positions at Cape Creek Middle School and Washougal High School, Hansen said.

“(Due to the) financial reality, we must be making adjustments,” Superintendent Mary Templeton said during the meeting. “That’s a shared sacrifice for all of us. We’re trying to find ways to take (advantage) of an opportunity when we see an opportunity. Inflation, in and of itself, is a beast, and it seems like it wants more and more (all the time), and we’re starting to see some of those impacts and trying to make real-time adjustments when we can.”

The district currently employs 177.5 FTE certificated staff members and 58 paraeducators, down from 194.3 and 62, respectively, in the 2022-23 school year.

“We actually feel pretty good about the number of the staff that we have,” Hansen said. “But we are leaner, and seeing a little bit more overload than we did last year. That means we have, in some cases, more students in classrooms, but we still have very low class sizes when we look at ourselves compared to other schools in the county.”

The district’s enrollment, “the primary driver” of its funding, has been declining for the past several years. The district hit a high point during the 2017-18 school year, when it counted 3,063 pupils, but dropped to 2,732 by the 2022-23 school year.

“We have fewer students entering (the district) each year than graduating,” finance director Kris Grindy said earlier this year. “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.”

District leaders are tentatively projecting that enrollment will go back up in 2027, however.

“We are hopeful that after the 2026-27 school year, we’re going to start to see it going the other way because of new development and potentially more housing available on the market,” Hansen said. “We believe that we’re going to see an increase.”

However, this district is now caught in “this in-between time when the Sunset Ridge (boom) will be ‘sunsetting,’ but we have not yet backfilled (those losses, and are dealing with) lower birth rates as an additional element,” according to Templeton.

The district is preparing to make additional staffing reductions and other adjustments during the “in-between time,” according to Templeton.

“Aaron and the team, and the flexibility of the entire educator workforce, were able to find a way to move forward, to come up with a budget, to provide those rich experiences, to maintain class size, and not (lose) any of our employees, and we were able to do that (for this school year),” she said. “I’m looking at a very similar challenge for the following school year. It’s a big one. You’ve seen the gap that we need to fill. I don’t know if we’ll be able to do that again with (just) retirement and attrition.”