Tri-Cities school budgets are coming up millions short. Here’s what they plan to do

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

Dona Gilmour is passionate about her job.

The Richland paraeducator returned to the district to continue a 28-year career after she took a break to help her husband when he had cancer. When she left, she lost her seniority.

Now she’s worried about losing her job at Lewis and Clark Elementary.

“I’m passionate about my kids,” she said. “I love my job. You guys have put a lot of money and time and training into me in the last 28 years, and you’re going to lose me.”

She is one of the nearly 400 paraeducators in the Richland School District who may need to reapply for the school they want to be in next year.

This district is still trying to figure out how many classified staff jobs there will be and which schools will get those workers as it tries to come up with a spending plan that factors in changes to state funding for teachers, decreases in local property tax revenue and near-static enrollment.

Richland has been at the forefront of the budget discussions after a worst-case budget projection was circulated on social media, but the district is not alone in starting to talk about its budget projections.

Pasco officials are predicting a $5 million decline in revenue, while costs are expected to rise by $7.5 million.

Kennewick is looking at a $5 million to $7 million shortfall in its proposed budget.

Richland staff cuts unclear

The Richland district’s current budget proposal eliminates 88 full-time classified staff positions. However, that doesn’t mean there will be that many layoffs. Many of those positions have remained unfilled for months.

Support for paraeducators was evident prior to Tuesday night’s Richland School Board meeting.

Still, there’s a budget shortfall that needs to be closed, school district leaders admitted during a recent board meeting.

Several of them spoke during the two hours of public testimony recently after the school district revealed the first draft of its 2019-20 budget.

“Since enrollment overall and special ed enrollment did not meet budget forecasts this year, we left a number of positions vacant,” said Superintendent Rick Schulte. “The predicted budget numbers approximately reflect current actual staffing levels.”

Classified staff covers a range of employees, including paraeducators who help in classrooms, administrative assistants and any employee who doesn’t need a teaching certificate.

What isn’t clear is how many positions will actually be cut.

Annie Carlson, the chapter president of the Public School Employees of Washington, said subcommittees have been meeting twice a week for a month “in hopes of reaching a fair and equitable way of handling these potential layoffs.”

Expenses outpacing revenue

The district is collecting more money, but expenses are increasing faster, the district’s budget reveals.

“Overall, the budget is more positive than I would have thought,” Schulte said. “It’s more positive than what I’m hearing from other school districts. It’s not perfect, by any means. We did have to make some cuts.”

School Board President Rick Jansons cautioned that this is not the final budget, and it’s unlikely the district will see the final draft before the state legislative session ends.

RSD meeting.jpg
Parents, paraeducators and teachers spoke during a recent several hour long Richland School Board meeting at Marcus Whitman Elementary. More than 500 people attended the meeting. Cameron Probert Tri-City Herald

While the district is predicting an overall increase in its budget, a couple of key financial resources are either dropping or not increasing as fast as the district had anticipated.

In particular, the Richland’s student enrollment did not grow as fast as leaders expected when they put together the budget last year. They anticipated 13,750 students this year, but had 13,550.

The budget was based on collecting state money for 13,700 students.

“Everything we receive is generated based on our enrollment,” Schulte said. “We’re actually budgeting for an increase of 150 students. ... That’s less than what we’re used to.”

They also are losing money from the local levy.

In the legislative fix to resolve the McCleary state Supreme Court decision after a lengthy lawsuit on school funding, the state increased its property tax by 81 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

In exchange, many school districts had to drop their levy rate to $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value.

The agreement also limited what the local property tax revenue could be used for, including teacher salaries. That change left schools shifting money from other areas to fill in the gap.

Richland School Superintendent Rick Schulte 2017
Rick Schulte

The drop means Richland will have $5.8 million less coming from local property owners next year, district officials said.

In addition, the state switched how it pays districts for teachers. Instead of paying based on the teacher’s experience and education, the state pays a flat rate for teachers.

That hurt districts, because they don’t pay all their teachers the same salary.

“The state’s change to a one-size-fits-all salary schedule leaves the district in the red by more than $10,000 per staff member on average because of our exceptionally experienced teachers and administrators,” said Ty Beaver, the district’s communications director.

Other school districts studying options

Michelle Whitney was chosen as the new Pasco School District superintendent. File Tri-City Herald

In a report to the school board earlier this week, Pasco Superintendent Michelle Whitney said she is arranging meetings at each of the schools during the next few months to answer questions.

“We’re standing on a shifting landscape,” she said. “We want to proactively communicate what we know when we know it, engage the board and the employees in the short term, and then in the longer term engage the broader community.”

Whitney hasn’t presented a budget to the school board, but she said the cost of doing business has risen by $4 million from last year. That increase covers everything from rising salaries to higher gas prices. In addition, the district expects to pay $3.5 million more in benefits for staff members.

Pasco is not planning any layoffs or cutting any programs, but the district will be trimming back travel, food for meetings and not putting any new programs in place. District leaders don’t want cuts to affect students.

“As a superintendent, if I have to prioritize myself going to a national conference or a teacher going, those positions closest to the children should be the ones we should be considering offering those opportunities,” Whitney said.

Kennewick hasn’t talked about any of the measures it may take to trim costs, but district officials say they are not expecting any drastic cuts.

Budget planners are waiting until the state Legislature finishes Washington’s spending plan to make decisions.

Democratic lawmakers indicated late Thursday that a budget agreement has been reached, but it had yet to be released to the public.

The legislative session was expected to end this weekend. If a budget is not approved, lawmakers may have to go into a special session.

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.