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Washougal School District seeks community guidance ahead of $3M in potential budget cuts

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Doug Flanagan/Post-Record Washougal School District Director of Teaching and Learning Tracey MacLachlan (center) talks to attendees at the school district's "listening tour," held Tuesday, March 28, 2023, at Washougal High School.

Faced with a $3 million budget shortfall, Washougal School District officials are reaching out to the community to provide feedback on possible budget reductions during the 2024-25 school year.

District leaders published a survey on the Washougal School District’s website last week and are set to present the results to the Washougal School Board during the Board’s Jan. 23 meeting.

“There are some really significant things in this list,” Les Brown, the district’s director of communications and technology, told the Washougal School Board Jan. 9, adding that the community survey was intended to let students, families, staff and community members know about the scale of the school district’s budget issues and to gauge these stakeholders’ priorities and preferences ahead of any potential budget cuts.

“Like other school districts around the state, our district is facing a budget shortfall,” the survey states. In Washougal, we are facing a shortfall of approximately $3 million for next year.“

The survey then asks survey-takers to prioritize possible staffing reductions and adjustments based on a pie chart showing where the district’s $51 million budget is currently being spent, including: $25.4 million (50%) for teachers and certified staff; $12 million (24%) on classified staff such as paraeducators, secretaries, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and custodians; $4.6 million (9%) for utilities, insurance and contracts; $2.6 million (5%) for principals and other school administrators; $2.5 million (5%) for supplies, food, textbooks, fuel and equipment; $2.3 million (4%) for districtwide administrators, including the superintendent and various directors and supervisors; $1 million (2%) for district office clerical expenses, including human resources and payroll services; and $400,000 (1%) on large equipment, training, travel and other expenditures.”

The survey can be found on the WSD’s website and surveymonkey.com/r/WSD-2024.

District leaders also plan to meet with stakeholders face to face throughout the next few months.

The district will host school board “listening tours,” designed to give community members an opportunity to share ideas and ask questions about the budget, from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 13, at Washougal High School’s Excelsior building, and from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 9, at a location not yet determined.

Washougal School District Superintendent Mary Templeton hold a public “superintendent’s roundtable” event to share information about the budget shortfall and gather feedback from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 19, at the Washougal School District office, located at 4855 Evergreen Way, Washougal.

District officials said they plan to incorporate the community feedback into the district’s first round of budget cuts, and Templeton said a second round of cuts may be necessary depending on the outcome of the state’s legislative sessions, inflation, collective bargaining and updates to the district’s enrollment forecast.

“The state does not adequately fund basic education,” said Kris Grindy, finance director for the school district. “The gap between what it costs to offer the high-quality schools our community expects for students and what we get from the state is increasing. We are underfunded for special education, substitutes, utility costs, insurance costs and personnel costs.”

Grindy said the district’s ending general fund balance is already below the school board’s minimum of 6%, “so reductions in spending will be required to both meet the minimum policy and to keep the district from moving into binding conditions, (which) occur when the school district is unable to provide a balanced budget and can no longer pay their bills. Our current budget situation means we may need to borrow from our capital fund to pay our monthly payroll this spring.”

District leaders announced in the fall of 2023, that they would have to cut around $3 million from the 2024-25 budget due to declining enrollment, inflation and other factors.

“It is a real challenge for all of us,” Templeton said during the Jan. 9 school board meeting. “It is my responsibility as your superintendent to make sure that we are fiscally resilient, and that our budget is sound, and that we have a balanced budget, so that is the plan. We are currently looking at every expenditure in real time, pulling back as much as we can. That is a shared sacrifice.”

Templeton said the district has already temporarily suspended its hiring processes to help keep costs in check.

“We are effectively sitting in a hiring freeze,” she said. “There might be a unique circumstance to (bring in) a person that’s essential for the organization. But, for the most part, when a position opens up currently, and in the future, we are not filling that position.”

That includes the district’s soon-to-be–vacant assistant superintendent position. Templeton announced in early January that the district would not replace Assistant Superintendent Aaron Hansen, who has accepted a position with the Camas School District and will leave his current role when his contract expires June 30.

“That is a sacrifice for everybody in the organization because the work that he’s doing is big,” Templeton said of Hansen. “We’re going to have to figure out how to prioritize that and share the responsibility, and we’re in the process of doing that right now. When I think about that sacrifice, it is not pleasant. It is not easy. It is not fun. But it must be done. That’s the methodology that I think about (for) the rest of the organization moving forward.”

Hansen said Jan. 9, that the district should explore opportunities to streamline operations and increase efficiency in areas that do not directly impact the classroom by, for example, restructuring administrative functions, consolidating programs and services, and performing certain tasks “in-house” rather than contracting them out.

“We are starting with non-instructional, the furthest from students as we can, with these reductions,” Hansen said. “That was something that we were doing last year, as well, and we’re continuing that. We want to consider the impact (the reductions are) going to have to the individuals who focus on our students, and finally, the impact that it will have on students. It’s crucial that we’re looking at student impact.”

At this point, the school district has identified the following areas for possible reductions or adjustments:

Staffing: Possible budget reductions could include reducing the number of administrators and district office staff, classified staff and teachers on special assignments, including instructional coaches and program coordinators; increasing class sizes; blending classrooms together; and implementing pay freezes, furloughs or pay cuts.

Programs: District leaders are considering consolidating schools, work spaces and offices; reducing building budgets, office supplies, the purchase of instructional materials; possible reductions to the district’s dual language programs, elementary art, music, library and physical education classes, and English language learner, highly capable, career and technical education and counseling programs; and eliminating community education preschool or increasing the cost to attend the preschool.

Services: Possible reductions could impact training, travel and contracts for professional development, maintenance and grounds services, technology services such as teacher technology support and device replacement, culinary services, family resource supports, bus routes, summer cleaning and repairs, safety staff and facility rental fees.

“These are possibilities,” Templeton said. “Not every single reduction that is possible will be needed. That’s why we’re trying to gather as much input and feedback (as we can).”

District leaders project the district’s ending fund balance will drop to 5%, lower than the Board’s goal of 6%, by the end of this school year, and decrease to 2% for the 2025-26 and 2026-27 school years.

The district projects it will end the current school year with 2,659 full-time equivalent (FTE) students, 21 fewer than it projected ahead of the 2023-24 school year. District leaders eliminated several staff positions and cut individual building budgets by 75% in the fall of 2023, in response to the lower enrollment numbers, which equal fewer per-pupil state funds coming into the school district.

Templeton said the district’s budget reductions will help make the district “fiscally resilient” with a fund balance that matches the school board’s policy without sacrificing student achievement.