Kennewick schools need to fill a $10 million gap. Parents fear music and arts will suffer

Kennewick School District officials said Friday they have not yet been served with the federal lawsuit, which was filed March 13.
Kennewick School District officials said Friday they have not yet been served with the federal lawsuit, which was filed March 13. Tri-City Herald

An expected budget shortfall in the Kennewick School District has ballooned to $10 million, and school leaders are hunting for ways to plug the gap.

As leaders work on plans to cut costs, parents, students and others are already worrying that their favorite programs will be axed.

Just this week, parents have expressed concerns that two Kennewick high school choir programs might be eliminated, and they are hoping to convince school leaders at Wednesday’s board meeting to save the programs.

The talk of cuts to Southridge High School’s elite choir program Golden Voices have been filtering through Facebook and Twitter. It’s unclear whether the messages refer to next year or this year.

A picture being shared on social media shows a message scrawled on a whiteboard with the date of the school board meeting and “#savegoldenvoices.”

Under it someone wrote, “As of this morning, Golden Voices (SHS’s Elite Choir), has been cut. The KSD is choosing to spend money elsewhere instead of supporting their arts. We are all attending the school board meeting ... , so please consider attending and helping us get our program back.”

The messages and rumors reached the Southridge High School music boosters club, which is inviting its members to share the little information that is available.

Kimberly Coffman is one of those students hoping the district will continue the program. The Southridge High School student has been part of the choir program for three years.

She’s spent much of that time striving to join the elite choir program, and finding out it could be cut was extremely upsetting, she said.

“The arts are already underfunded and under appreciated, so when there were talks about budget cuts, we couldn’t help but react,” she said.

No decision yet on cuts

School officials said talks about any specific cuts are premature. Superintendent Dave Bond is expected to present possible plans to the school board at Wednesday’s meeting.

“The board has made no decisions yet on what kind of reductions will be made, and/or how much of the district’s fund balance will be used to balance the budget,” said Robyn Chastain, the district’s director of communications and public services.

The district, much like many others across the state, lost a big funding source when the state limited how much they could raise from local levies.

In 2017, the state said local districts could only ask for $1.50 per $1,000 of property value in levy proposals. That resulted in a cut from $3.37 to $1.50 in Kennewick, which left the district with a huge hole in its budget.

While the state has now eased that levy restriction to allow districts to raise as much as $2.50 per $1,000 of property value, it still remains unclear whether Kennewick can raise property taxes without a new levy election.

Tri-Cities school districts are in various stages of planning their budgets.

Pasco officials plan to talk about how they’ll deal with the state’s school funding decisions during a meeting next Tuesday.

Richland officials promised to not cut any positions, but may increase property taxes.

Budget problems

The district had already known it was going to be $5 million to $7 million in the hole, but the Legislature this year required districts to pay for health insurance for more employees.

The district’s board members agreed to use part of the district’s reserves and trim spending to balance the budget, according to April 17 board minutes. With 82 percent to 84 percent of the budget paying for staff, Bond said balancing the budget is going to mean cutting positions.

What hasn’t been determined is if there will be layoffs or if unfilled positions won’t be filled.

When voters approved a February 2018 levy, the district requested $14.9 million in local property taxes in 2020. The district can’t exceed that amount, according to the state Department of Revenue.

For 2019, the district is collecting $12.7 million of the $13.2 million it requested, according to Benton County tax records.

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.