By Oliver Lazenby
The Blaine school district is projecting a $1.1 million budget shortfall next year and is planning a budget for the 2019-2020 school year that could mean laying off up to six teachers. The prospects remain fluid, as state lawmakers continue to work on a budget that will affect the district’s finances, but the district is contractually obligated to notify teachers of possible layoffs by May 15.
“We have to continue moving forward with this process and assume the worst case scenario,” Blaine school district superintendent Ron Spanjer said at the beginning of an April 15 budget work session.
Complicating things further, the state legislative session isn’t scheduled to end until April 28 and lawmakers haven’t adjourned on schedule since 2009; the 2015 and 2017 state legislative sessions both extended into July. The Blaine school district board of directors typically passes a final budget at its August meeting.
The audience at the April 15 budget work session was comprised mostly of school staff. Any staffing cuts will impact students; changes to kitchen staff could mean less items on the menu and a line longer than the lunch period; fewer teachers mean bigger classes; losing intervention specialist and learning support staff mean less support for students at risk of dropping out, speakers said.
What might be cut?
District finance director Amber Porter presented a plan to the board at the April 15 meeting that outlined cutting $650,000 from the district’s budget for teachers and about $250,000 from the classified staffing budget. Classified staff include most non-teaching positions, such as janitors, cafeteria and playground support, secretaries, maintenance and operations, and library staff.
That corresponds to roughly six teacher positions and eight to 10 classified positions, though many classified positions are part-time and as little as 2.5 hours per day, Porter said.
While the district has a May 15 deadline for its decision on teacher layoffs, there’s no contractual deadline for classified staff. District officials would try to spread the cuts out across a variety of positions, Spanjer and Porter said.
The district can get creative to reduce the number of actual layoffs. Two teachers have retired or resigned so far this year and if more teachers retire, the district may be able to shuffle teachers around and avoid laying anyone off, administrators said.
Teacher salaries, including benefits and all other costs to the district, range from about $73,000 to $130,000, Porter said. Typically, teachers who resign are near the top of the pay scale.
The district is looking at having teachers change grade levels to maximize the amount of state money it can receive. The district can get additional state money by keeping primary grade class sizes below 17, so it could move teachers from the elementary school to the primary school to unlock those extra state funds.
If resignations and shifting teachers around can’t close the $650,000 gap, teacher positions would need to be cut.
“Those discussions tend to lead toward electives,” Spanjer said, especially at the middle school and high school level. “That’s not to diminish the importance of electives. We’re limited in terms of what our options are and right now the discussions lead to how we can be more efficient at the seventh to twelfth grade level.”
For classified staff, Porter said meeting the budget cut may be manageable by retirements and realignments alone.
Why the deficit?
In 2017, lawmakers capped the amount that districts can collect from local tax levies at $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed value or $2,500 per student, whichever is lower, and that money can no longer pay for salaries or other basic education needs. In turn, the state is now allocating an average of at least $64,000 per teacher, up from $54,000, but the amount varies by district. The state intended to make districts more equitable by providing more state funds and making districts less reliant on local taxpayers. The change has benefitted some districts financially and hurt others.
For 2019-2020, the amount the Blaine school district can levy dropped by $2 million. Other factors contributing to the district’s budget deficit include increasing costs for audits, assessments and other programs the school is mandated to carry out, and increased staff wages, Porter said.
The state legislature is currently discussing several factors that may shrink the district’s budget deficit, including the state’s formula for funding special education, mental health and school counseling, how much the state provides for employee health care and a temporary adjustment to how much districts can levy.
At the April 29 school board meeting, the board will vote on a reduced budget plan that will specify which positions would get cut.
School districts around the state are facing similar shortfalls to Blaine and preparing for layoffs. The Spokane public schools district announced earlier this month that it could lay off up to 325 employees because of projected deficits. Teachers in some districts have already received layoff notices.
Officials and employees from districts around the state are pressuring the legislature for more financial support.
“We’re still trying to account for how much reduction is going to be necessary,” Spanjer said. “We think it won’t be more than $1.1 million and likely less.”