Kennewick schools budget woes may mean fewer people working more hours

The Kennewick School District headquarters building is on West Fourth Avenue.
The Kennewick School District headquarters building is on West Fourth Avenue. Tri-City Herald file

Kennewick schools plans no layoffs this year, but there will be fewer employees when the doors open in the fall.

District leaders presented a plan this week that trims 18 to 20 full-time teaching positions and thousands of hours of work by custodians, paraeducators and secretarial staff.

The district also may remove or combine elementary school assistant principal positions.

The series of cuts, combined with using $5 million from reserves, is Kennewick School District’s proposal to cover a $10 million budget deficit.

“We believe we are large enough and the challenge is of a significant size that we can do what we need to do through the normal attrition that happens at a school district of this size,” Superintendent Dave Bond said at this week’s crowded school board meeting. “The job that you had this year may change.”

District leaders also want part-time employees to work more hours, so they can fill in gaps created by state-mandated changes to medical benefits.

Bond presented the plan to the Kennewick board in front of about 200 students, parents and employees who packed the meeting, many of them worried about cuts to music and arts programs at Southridge and Kennewick high schools.

Social media-fueled rumors raised concerns earlier in the week about the elimination of two specific choir groups at the schools.

Bond explained that those possible class cuts were not budget-related, but rather the result of not enough students signing up to take the courses. Administrators suggested they work to recruit more students for the programs.

Trimming costs

District officials said they plan to find some savings for their budget shortfall in other other areas, such as holding off on replacing curriculum in the most expensive subject areas.

However, the greatest savings will come in staffing adjustments.

Nearly 38 full-time certificated staff, mainly teachers, expect to leave the district next school year, and 18 to 20 of those openings won’t be filled.

“We believe it’s completely doable,” Bond said. “We’re identifying areas where we’re overstaffed relative to student enrollment. ... Remember we have about 1,200 certificated staff.”

Some of the remaining teachers will work in two different buildings or need to teach in an additional content area.

The cuts to classified staff follows a similar pattern. They are looking at trimming 60 hours a day from paraeducators, 20 hours daily of secretarial hours and 32 hours a day from custodians.

They said they can make all of those changes without laying anyone off.

“That 60 hours, 20 hours, 32 hours, can’t come from any programs where there is a special needs child or a one-on-one (paraeducators), that’s not what we’re talking about,” Bond said. “Everybody will have a job. Their benefits will be the best benefits they ever received, but they may be shifted around.”

Kennewick paraeducators and supporters rally Tuesday near the school district office. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

They are also looking at either sharing or cutting assistant principals at elementary schools with less than 400 students.

Currently, all of the elementary schools have a principal and an assistant principal and with a range of projected enrollments from 709 students at Amistad to 373 students at Washington.

And Bond said the district plans to move more employees toward working full-time.

Their goal is to have nearly all staff members working at least six hours a day after a new state mandate provides full medical benefits to hundreds of part-time employees.

While the district is required to pick up the entire tab for many of those employees, the state is paying just part of the costs.

“We’re still analyzing how this is going to impact us,” Bond said.

Why the budget shortfall

Kennewick school leaders are dealing with budget issues similar to those facing neighboring school districts.

They are seeing decreasing local property taxes, slowing enrollment and bumps in teacher pay and employee benefits.

The largest decline in revenue — $13 million — was triggered by a change in local property taxes.

As part of the Legislature’s solution to the McCleary ruling by the state Supreme Court, lawmakers capped local levies at $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value. Then, the state raised its portion of property taxes and gave districts bigger allotments.

However, in many cases, that formula left school districts like Kennewick with less money.

Just recently, the state eased those restrictions, allowing some districts to raise their levies to $2.50 per $1,000 of assessed value, starting in 2020.

Bond said they will have to talk about that issue this fall, but it doesn’t change what taxes they will receive for the 2019-20 school year.

The state now pays districts one flat rate for all teachers, no matter their level of training or experience, leaving school districts with more experienced teachers to pay the difference.

Compounding the problem is the district based its budget on having more students, which brings in more state money.

But after five years of seeing 300 to 400 more students being added each fall, the district only grew by 132 students in the 2018-19 school year.

District leaders said they plan to be more cautious about their enrollment predictions.

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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.