Grade school shift to be viewed

Sequim discussion set for 6 tonight

SEQUIM — A proposal to shift students and staff at Sequim’s two elementary schools is coming before the Sequim School Board this evening.

The plan that would shift Greywolf and Helen Haller elementary schools from each hosting grade levels up to grade five would place preschool through second-graders at Greywolf and third- , fourth- and fifth-graders at Helen Haller.

The board meets at 6 p.m. today at the Sequim High School library, 601 N. Sequim Ave. Find the board’s agenda here: go.boarddocs.com/wa/sequim/Board.nsf/vpublic?open.

The proposal is part of moves that district officials say will help balance a budget that’s expected to have a $3.6 million shortfall, or about 7.7 percent of the district’s $46.6 million annual budget.

District leaders held special budget meetings on March 13 and March 20 to outline the plan, along with other budget reduction considerations.

“There are challenging times ahead for Sequim School District, but we will pull together and make sure these challenges bring positive outcomes for our students,” Sequim schools Superintendent Regan Nickels wrote in a message to parents and students on March 18.

The restructuring of elementary schools has drawn the concern of parents and staffers alike, many of whom voiced their concerns at the March budget meetings.

Sequim High School mathematics teacher Jorn (Joe) Van De Weghe said he’s concerned not only by the short time frame of the change — it’s proposed the shift happen for the 2023-2024 school year — but also the seeming lack of input from parents and staff prior to the March meetings.

“Schools that want to do something like this [are given more] than a few months,” Van De Weghe said in a follow-up interview last week.

“The parents weren’t really sought out. The majority of the staff is not for it, either.

“She [Nickels] should have asked us [and] got input from staff.”

Restructuring reasons

Among various staffing and department changes considered, Nickels outlined a number of benefits from re-configuring Sequim’s elementary schools.

Class sizes would be more evenly balanced, district officials said, and keeping grade levels at the same school would “meet the needs of the students in each building, without having to replicate [them] across two K-5 elementary schools.”

In addition, staff could better offer remediation services and support with fewer grade levels in each building, they said, and the shift would help students transition into Sequim Middle School. More sections in a school at each grade level, they said, would give more flexibility to meet students’ academic and special education needs.

“I picture a future in which a PK-2 Early Learning Center provides support and learning experiences, specially designed for 5- to 7-year-olds, who learn through play and early literacy experiences,” Nickels wrote on March 18.

“I see a Learning Foundations Focus for grades 3-5 in which basic academic foundations are not only built, but practiced, including reading, writing, math, communication, and social skills.”

However, Van De Weghe said, the major reason elementary reconfiguration is being touted is as a cost-savings measure. He argued that it doesn’t pan out.

The reality, he said, is that the move is to cut staffing numbers, and that it could be achieved without shifting the grades and staffers at the two schools in the “traditional” model.

In a chart Van De Weghe provided, four of the 25 staff positions at Helen Haller and two of the 25 at Greywolf could be eliminated in the “traditional model,” with the largest class size — Greywolf’s fourth-grade classes — growing from about 22 to 29, as that school’s grade level staff shrinks from four to three.

The total “overage” pay to staff in this model, he said, would be about $30,000, while reduction in staffing would be between $850,000 and $1.2 million — similar figures to what the district is touting with the reconfiguration model.

Van De Weghe has elementary school-aged children this change would affect.

“If you want to do elementary reconfiguration, I’m not opposed to that,” he said. “[But] I’d want it considered on its academic merits.”

Either way, he said, staff would need to be cut and the class sizes would rise above the figures that have been negotiated between the teachers’ union and district. (Van De Weghe is the chief negotiator for the teachers’ union.)

“When you do that math, there’s no savings at all,” he said.

“It’s not a savings, it’s a reduction.”

He said if the district is set on making the elementary school change, that it be put off for a year to get more “buy-in” from parents and staff.

ESSER funds

In the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, school districts across the state received federal ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funds, short-term funding distributed to support districts through the pandemic.

These funds, Nickels noted in an email to district families on March 4, have helped in a variety of ways in the past two years, enhancing staffing levels and increasing health and mental health services (such as more nurses, health room assistants and social emotional/behavioral health specialists, etc.).

But the funds were one-time revenue streams that will soon run out. Sequim will have spent more than $7 million ESSER funds by the end of the school year. The district will have about $1.34 million remaining, though the funds have “strings attached,” Nickels said at a March 6 school board meeting.

At the same time, the district’s student population has not rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. Some of the district’s funding comes from apportionment based on student full-time equivalent (about $9,000 per student).

The district had about 2,566 students as of October 2022 — down from about 2,685 in October 2019. Since this past October, Nickels noted, the district lost another 24 students.

School districts across the state are facing similar budget problems, and face having to plan for shortfalls before state legislators have their budget proposals — upon which school districts depend — finalized. The present legislative session ends April 24.

The Port Angeles School District is preparing for a 10 percent reduction in its workforce as it moves ahead with plans to cut $5,692,243 from its 2023-2024 budget.

________

Michael Dashiell is the editor of the Sequim Gazette of the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which also is composed of other Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News and Forks Forum. Reach him at editor@sequimgazette.com.

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