Facing tough budget decisions, these jobs at Richland schools may be cut

Special education activist Jennifer Pellegrini talks about inclusion

Special education activist and mother of two school-aged special needs children, Jennifer Pellegrini talks about inclusion in the classroom and funding of special education. February 1, 2019
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Special education activist and mother of two school-aged special needs children, Jennifer Pellegrini talks about inclusion in the classroom and funding of special education. February 1, 2019

Richland may be eying a reduction in the number of paraeducators in the school district as it looks for ways to trim costs in anticipation of upcoming budget pressures.

Richland Education Association officials are on a campaign to lobby parent-teacher organizations across the district to protect the positions, which they say are vital for the special education program.

Paraeducators help teachers in their classrooms, often providing extra attention for students that need it. They often help with special education programs. There are just under 400 paraeducators working for the district.

The association said it was initially warned about the potential cutbacks early this month. Then things became more certain on March 18 when it learned that about 110 positions may be trimmed next year, said Ken Hays, the president of the Richland Education Association.

Potential cuts this year come on the heels of 70 positions being cut from the budget last year, Hays said.

“This is going to drastically impact our students,” Hays said. “Special education students’ parents should know that students are going to receive fewer services next year.”

District administrators aren’t confirming whether the numbers are accurate, but district spokesman Ty Beaver said the district is in the middle of tough budget decisions.

Superintendent Rick Schulte previously warned that the district was looking at cuts because of a combination of stagnant enrollment, changes in how much property taxes they can collect and how much the state pays for teachers.

“This will likely impact staffing levels,” district officials said in an official statement. “We are working with our unions to move our schools to a new staffing model that continues to prioritize small class sizes, quality first-time instruction, strong student supports and engaging extracurricular programming.”

The association is negotiating for its special education program, and Hays said these paraeducator cuts will leave them in a tough spot if approved. As the number of paraeducators decline, there is less of a chance for special-needs students to get the attention they should have, and there is an increase in the chance of bad behavior, the association said.

The district is already using too few paraeducators in special education classrooms, Hays said, noting that there were two citizen complaints filed with the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction at the end of the 2016-17 school year.

Each special education student has a plan for how their education is supposed to be handled, and the state found that the district didn’t consistently follow those instructions. Hays said one of the reasons was because there weren’t enough paraeducators.

McCleary solution creates problems

The school district says the solution to a nearly six-year-long battle over school funding has ended up being a big cause of funding problems.

Two years ago, state lawmakers placed limits on how much money school districts can collect through local levies. In turn, they raised the state property tax rate.

According to nonpartisan state legislative officials, school districts statewide collected about $2.6 billion through their local tax levies in 2018. But that amount is expected to fall to $1.6 billion this year because of restrictions placed on local levies.

While the exact total of Richland’s potential budget deficit is unknown, Schulte said the district lost about $8 million in local property tax funding, and the funding they did get locally has many more restrictions on how that money can be used.

On top of that, the state changed how it pays districts for teachers by replacing a graduated pay scale with a flat rate. While this benefited some districts, Richland’s staff has more education and experience, meaning the difference between the state’s share and local portion is greater because they are on average a higher-paid staff.

School leaders from across the state are pushing for increases in special education funding and changes in laws on local levies as ways to bridge what they call a continuing lack of funding caused by the McCleary solution.

School officials are hoping citizens will ask their legislators to support measures aimed at increasing funding for special education and allowing districts to raise more through local levies.

Opponents of these measures warn that constantly shifting how the state funds education threatens to undermine the public’s faith and could bring about another lawsuit.

While several Western Washington school districts have been vocal about the potential shortfalls they are facing, districts in the Tri-Cities are being quieter until state budgets are finalized so school officials know how they will be impacted.

Richland has been the most open about their budget issues. Kennewick and Pasco have said they are waiting until the state Legislature finishes its budget before making any announcements about potential cuts.