PACIFIC COUNTY — Budgets throughout the county and state are taking massive hits due to the economic onslaught brought on by the covid-19 pandemic, and school district budgets are no different. The question isn’t if there will be ramifications to local school budgets, but how severe?
As Ocean Beach School District and Naselle-Grays River Valley School District maneuver through the 2020-21 budget process, superintendents at both districts are preparing for a variety of different scenarios.
OBSD Superintendent Amy Huntley said most of the funding her district receives from the state is, in theory, constitutionally protected as “basic education” due to the McCleary Decision, when the Washington State Supreme Court found the state was not fulfilling the state constitutional duty to fully fund education in the state.
What ensued was a more than five-year struggle for the Washington State Legislature to come up with an adequate fix. That fix called for school districts to receive more funding from the state budget by increasing state property taxes, while putting a cap on how much districts could receive from local levies.
A report earlier this month from the Washington State Economic and Revenue Forecast Council projected a loss in revenue of $3.8 billion through the end of the current budget in June 2021, for a deficit higher than 10% and likely surpassing the revenue fallout the state faced from the Great Recession.
Some 60% of the state’s total expenditures for the current budget are set aside as either entitlements or court-ordered expenditures — such as K-12 education — and are supposed to be baked into the budget and untouchable. With the unprecedented situation the state faces, though, Huntley says she can’t be sure that legislators won’t try and make cuts to basic education funding to stop the bleeding.
“What we’re dealing with right now is a huge uncertainty, because while the budget is set and in theory we should know what our funding is going to be, the legislature has this huge deficit they have to fill,” Huntley said.
Staff cuts a possibility
The only opportunity OBSD has to make cuts to the district’s certified teaching staff is at the May 13 special school board meeting, because state law dictates May 15 is the latest a certified teacher must be told if they’re going to be rehired or not for the next school year. Non-certified staff can be laid off after 10 business days notice.
“After May 15, even if our budget implodes, I can’t lay off teachers,” said Huntley. “So school districts are proactively looking at their budgets, trying to see where they can cut, trying to predict what the legislature might do — and that’s a big ‘might’ — and trying to decide, ‘Do I cut teachers, do I not cut teachers?’”
There are some “organic cuts” that will help OBSD, Huntley said, such as staff that’s retiring or already weren’t planning on returning for the next school year. The district will wait and see how the budget situation evolves, and will not immediately try to rehire for those positions.
This year’s budget uncertainty also comes on the heels of last year’s budget, when the district cut about $800,000.
“We already made a bunch of cuts last year, knowing we were overextended a bit,” said Huntley. “So we’ve already made a lot of cuts, how do you take it to the next level and not compromise the things in the classroom you really need?”
Unlike some school districts, Huntley said OBSD is already in a relatively good position to deal with a drop in state funding. Many districts have more staff than the state’s prototypical model suggests they should have for schools their size, and those districts are now trying to cut down to that suggested level. OBSD, according to Huntley, is already at that level.
School districts in the state have already made large staff cuts, including two districts in Grays Harbor County. On May 8, The Daily World in Aberdeen reported the Aberdeen School District will cut the equivalent of 46 teaching positions after facing a $6.3 million shortfall for the 2020-21 school year, and the district still needs to find another $2 million in cuts. Previously, the World reported April 29 that the Hoquiam School District informed 18 teachers they would not be re-hired at the end of this school year.
Huntley does not expect OBSD to have to make dramatic cuts like in Aberdeen or Hoquiam, partly because those districts rely on local effort assistance (LEA) dollars from the state, a fund not covered under basic education that is at risk of seeing a large cut in funding due to the pandemic. LEA funds go to “property-poor” school districts to help offset lower property values.
“We are people-poor and property-rich, so we don’t get LEA dollars and ours are not at risk. But for some districts, that can be a major hit to their budget,” Huntley said at the April 22 school board meeting.
Uncertainty over the future
Huntley and Naselle-Grays River Valley School District Superintendent Lisa Nelson both said budget decisions will partly depend on what school looks like when it comes back for the fall. If distanced learning is still in place then as it is now, staff cuts will likely be called for.
Nelson said it seems “nearly impossible” that Naselle will be able to continue to employ all of its district staff — as it has done thus far — if a distanced learning model is still in place.
“It’s a difficult time trying to predict budgets not knowing exactly what our enrollment will look like, as many students have now been engaging in a type of homeschool environment,” Nelson said.
Huntley echoed the same sentiments, saying decisions for non-certified staff may not be made until later in the summer or fall when, hopefully, the district will also have a better sense of the legislature’s plan to address the state budget’s deficit.
“If we’re not at school, or we’re on shifts, that can significantly change how many staff members we need,” said Huntley. “It’s the hardest I think it could ever be, right now. Because even if you knew you had this huge hole that you had to cut, you knew what you were reaching toward. Right now, I have no idea. I have no idea how much we may have to cut.”
Nelson added that Naselle receives about $750,000 in federal funds each year, and called it the district’s biggest immediate challenge. She said she’s been advised that the subsequent school year, 2021-22, may look much worse.
OBSD, Huntley said, really doesn’t know what the budget’s going to look like for at least the next three years, saying there could be very few cuts this coming school year but major cuts the next two years. It all depends on how the local and state economy recovers from the pandemic.
“The toughest part of your job is even thinking about having to cut people and services for kids. You don’t want to do it, but ultimately you only have what you have,” Huntley said.