Sequim, Port Angeles schools prepare for cuts

Officials keep eye on state Legislature

The Port Angeles and Sequim public school districts are facing cuts in their 2023-2024 budgets that will result in staffing and program reductions.

The boards of the two districts heard in meetings this week that, even with state funding, they should plan on significant cuts for the upcoming school year.

State legislators are currently in session and have yet to propose a full budget from the House or Senate, leaving Sequim, Port Angeles and other school districts in a waiting game to see if any budgetary changes will affect their budgets.

“We’re definitely in projection status,” Sequim Superintendent Regan Nickels said.

Nickels said the district is preparing for a cut in the neighborhood of 7.7 percent — or about $3.6 million — while the Port Angeles School District (PASD) faces a $5.6 million deficit.

Nickels told board members Monday that officials are working to keep staffing cuts as far away from student instruction as possible.

She said the district will send out surveys to families and staffers soon for their feedback on where cuts could be made and where there might be opportunities for revenue.

“We have quite a bit of latitude [about spending], so it’s about our priorities,” Nickels said.

The district will host two budget community forums about possible changes and budget reductions held at the Sequim High School Library at 601 N. Sequim Ave.:

• 6 p.m. Monday, March 13

• 5 p.m. Monday, March 20, just before the board of directors’ regularly scheduled meeting at 6 p.m.

Nickels said that rising costs and an experienced teacher workforce that earned more than the state will reimburse are further squeezing the district.

“We should be a school district that wants to keep their staff,” she said.

While the district could see some budgetary relief as staff retire, resign or leave for other districts, “attrition will not be the solution,” Nickel said.

PASD timeline

PASD is preparing for workforce and program reductions based on revenues and current enrollment while at the same time keeping an eye on the state Legislature to see what kind of funding it will receive.

It is a tight timeline: The last day of the legislative session is April 23 and the board will vote on the district’s budget at its meeting on April 27.

‘“We’re in a hurry-up-and-wait situation right now where we’re trying to make decisions waiting for the Legislature to come back with new revenue sources, hopefully, so that we don’t have to make as many reduces as we have projected as we have to make,” said Kira Acker, PASD director of finance and operations.

At its March 23 meeting, the PASD board will receive additional information on the budget and consider a reduction in programs resolution directing Superintendent Marty Brewer to start building a detailed plan for making up the difference between revenues and expenditures.

Brewer said that if the Legislature made any funding decisions before April 23, the district could start moving quicker, but that scenario was highly unlikely. The only certainty was that any amount of funding from the state would not be enough to make up for the deficit.

“It is certain that we are going to need to reduce programs,” Brewer said. “Right now, today, if we were to make those educational cuts it would be $5.6 million.”

Sequim restructuring

Nickels said Sequim district officials were identifying programs that should be maintained, such as special education, learning assistance, extended day learning and increased achievement, while looking at eliminating redundancies and considering department-by-department restructuring.

Nickels said the district also is looking at changing its elementary school model in which Greywolf and Helen Haller serve kindergarten through fifth grade to a model in which one school serves K-2 students and the other serves students in grades 3-5.

The switch, Nickels said, could help reduce some “redundancies” and improve opportunities around the district’s Learning Assistance Program.

The elementary school shift was proposed under then-interim superintendent Jane Pryne, who left at the end of 2021, but the plan was shelved soon thereafter.

Moving ahead, Sequim will no longer be able to rely on ESSER funds as it has over the past two years, Nickels said. The funds were intended to support districts through the pandemic, but they will end soon.

Sequim will have spent more than $7 million in ESSER funds by the end of the school year — funds Nickels noted in an email to district families March 4 that have helped the district in a variety of ways, including enhancing staffing levels and increasing health and mental health services.

“We’re going to maximize the latitude of how these funds are spent,” she said of the about $1.34 million in ESSER funds remaining.

Sequim’s annual budget is about $46.675 million. Nickels said the district would like to keep a minimum fund balance of about 4 percent to 6 percent — auditors suggest something closer to 9 percent to 11 percent — and Sequim’s currently hovers at about $1.7 million, or a little less than 4 percent.

“We have the lowest fund balance among the Olympic Peninsula schools,” Nickels said.

Student population

Compounding the Sequim district’s budget challenges are a student population that has not bounced back to its pre-pandemic levels.

The district had about 2,566 students in October 2022 — down from about 2,685 in October 2019. Nickels said the district had lost another 24 students since October.

At PASD, Acker said she made a low-ball projection of 3,365 full-time students for calculating the PASD’s 2023-2024 budget.

It was particularly difficult to estimate the number of kindergartners, but based on low counts across the state and other trends, Acker projected 233 students — down from the 2022-23 budgeted enrollment of 252.

But district officials won’t know the amount of per full-time student funding it will get from the state until the Washington State Legislature ends its present session.

“I’ll be able to figure it out from there,” Acker said.

PASD Board President Sarah Methner said last year the board requested a budget that had lower enrollment projections than what Acker had presented.

“It always feel better when you see that you’ve lost students, but it’s okay because you’ve budgeted low enough,” Methner said. “I always want to err on the side of caution.”

Acker said she was confident in projections that were “very, very conservative” and that the district was still below the projections that were made for the 2022-2023 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.

Paula Hunt, reporter with the Peninsula Daily News, can be reached at 360-425-2345, ext. 50583, or by email at paula.hunt@peninsuladailynews.com.

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