Port Angeles Superintendent Martin Brewer

Port Angeles Superintendent Martin Brewer

Port Angeles schools to lay off staff in $2.6 million cuts

PORT ANGELES — The Port Angeles School District will lay off teachers and other staff to address a projected $2.6 million budget shortfall in the 2019-2020 school year, its top administrator said.

Citing inequities under the state’s new funding model for education, Superintendent Martin Brewer said Thursday the district must eliminate staff at “every level” of the organization.

“We have dug deep and tried to impact our buildings as little as possible and still give our students a great opportunity for education with all of the enrichment opportunities that we’ve been able to carry out in the past,” Brewer said.

While sports, music and other programs will be spared, Brewer said the reductions in force, or RIFs, will result in larger class sizes.

“Obviously when you reduce force, you’re going to see your class sizes raise a little bit,” Brewer said.

“We’ll see an increase in class sizes at the elementary, middle school and some classes at the high school.”

The Port Angeles School Board passed a resolution Feb. 14 to direct the superintendent to reduce staff amid state funding cuts under the McCleary fix, also known as the levy swap.

The new local levy cap of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, which took effect in January, represents a nearly 40 percent decrease in local levy funds to the Port Angeles School District, officials said.

After balancing the 2018-2019 budget by cutting nearly $1 million in operational expenses, school administrators have spent the last three months grappling with an estimated $2.6 million — or 5 percent — budget reduction for the 2019-2020 school year.

Brewer would not say how many employees will be laid off.

“We’re working with each (union) association to have those conversations on specific individuals, and until that information is released, I’d like to withhold that,” Brewer said.

“It’s a legitimate question. I get that. But out of respect for the employees that this will impact, and the respect that we have for our associations, we want to work through a process with them first to make sure that we’re on the same page and we’ve dotted all our I’s and crossed all our T’s and make sure that we carry out this work in a very respectful fashion.”

Brewer said he made a commitment to staff to inform each affected employee several months ahead of time.

“We owe our great people of this district that early notification and a face-to-face conversation,” Brewer said.

“That’s really important in my book.

“But this whole issue, as we’ve created a balanced budget, is not a district doing,” he added.

“This is a McCleary fix concept that needs to be looked at across the state, for many, many districts across the state.

“There are districts that are more impacted, but we are right up there.”

The state Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to fully fund basic education under the McCleary decision.

Approved by lawmakers in 2017 and adjusted last year, the bipartisan “McCleary fix” provided more than $1 billion in new funding for basic education and raised teacher salaries.

It also capped local levies at $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, or $2,500 per full-time student, whichever is less.

The compromise disproportionately impacts districts with relatively low land values and higher levies, Brewer said.

“We’re going from three bucks to a buck-fifty,” Brewer said of the Port Angeles school levy.

“The further you are away from a $1.50, the more impact it has to your district. School districts like Aberdeen, Tacoma, Chehalis, Centralia, they’re all struggling with this same thing as well, because their tax rates were very high based on assessed valuation.”

For comparison, the Sequim School District levy went from $1.59 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to $1.50, a 6 percent decrease.

“We both collect the same state dollars, so their impact and our impact — very different,” Brewer explained.

“There are winners and losers in the swap, let’s put it that way.”

Other factors contributing to the $2.6 million shortfall include underfunded special education, reductions in temporary “regionalization” funding, an outdated “prototypical model” for counselors, nurses and paraeducators and a School Employee Benefits Board program that was not fully funded, PASD officials said in a press release.

The McCleary fix requires districts to use local levy funding to back-fill for non-basic education programs.

“It’s really a complex issue as to why we’re looking at $2.6 million,” Brewer said of next year’s cuts.

“And as I’ve been stating all year long, starting last June, the McCleary fix, or the levy swap, doesn’t work for the Port Angeles School District.”

The Port Angeles School District cut spending by 2 percent to balance this year’s budget. It eliminated a high school counseling position, a low-enrollment preschool program and shed secretarial staff.

“Our assessed valuation came in a little higher than we anticipated,” Brewer said.

“We got some additional state dollars for transportation, and we’ve decreased our travel and supplies costs and materials cost.

“The facts are we’re losing revenue,” Brewer added, “and when we lose revenue we can only cut supplies and materials so far, and then we have to start looking at RIFs, and we’re RIFing positions across the district, from the district office to every building in our district.”

Brewer emphasized that he is “totally against” raising local levy rates as a remedy to the unintended consequences of the McCleary fix.

“I think it would be the beginning of a McCleary II,” said Brewer, who was hired last year from the Pioneer School District in Shelton.

“We should all be paying the same rate.”

Possible fixes to the McCleary fix include more funding for special education and school counselors and a fully-funded School Employee Benefits Board program, Brewer said.

“I recognize from a district standpoint that our lawmakers did everything they could to carry out the work and fully fund education,” Brewer said.

“For me, equity in education is paramount, and the equity behind this funding model is at times hard to see, but they did a really nice job of fully funding education and I don’t want to take that away from them.

“I think they took a tough job and carried it out,” Brewer added.

“Now, we’re just looking for some minor tweaks to help some specific districts across the state to help offset some of those revenue losses.”

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at [email protected].

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