SEQUIM — Facing the prospect of declining enrollment, a drop in tax levy collection and uncertainty over the lasting effects of the new coronavirus crisis, Sequim School District’s top administrator is preparing to make more than $2.6 million in cuts from the district’s current budget, including possibly as many as 10 teachers.
Budget recommendations from Superintendent Rob Clark include the elimination of as many as 15 paraeducators, two secretaries, two positions from the transportation and custodial departments, $200,000 in reductions from special education certified staff and specialists, more than $100,000 from administration costs and extra duty stipends, and $100,000 in cuts from both supplies/materials and from extra-curricular/co-curricular activities, among others.
“What I’m showing you is the worst case scenario,” Clark told the Sequim School Board on Monday.
“I don’t know how many kids are going to come back this fall, I don’t know if the Legislature is going to meet this summer … to mitigate some of these cuts,” he said. “I’m getting a little tired of saying ‘I don’t know.’ But that’s the answer.”
Other changes to Sequim’s school offerings include larger class sizes and a reduction in class offerings at the middle school and high school levels.
“Our goal,” Clark wrote in his budget cut recommendations, “is to retain as many teachers as possible.”
Still, the recommended cuts include $1 million from basic education, meaning as many as 10 teachers could be reduced from overall staffing, Clark told board directors.
The 15 paraeducators and 10 teachers would each be first-year provisional staffers, he said.
The district normally sees a number of staffers retire and are able to adjust staffing levels through attrition, but Sequim is seeing very few employees declare intent to retire at this time, Clark said.
Board directors will consider adopting the recommended budget reductions at their next meeting slated for Monday, April 27 (the meeting will also be held virtually, with no public attendance and only written public comments prior to the meeting).
“On April 27, unless I get new negative information, that number will be less,” Clark said.
All departments will feel some cuts, Clark said, but transportation and custodial departments are already thin and would likely be the first to be reinstated if the budget cuts aren’t as severe as this initial proposal, he said.
A Reduction in Force (RIF) resolution should be ready for board approval by May 4, Clark noted, and staffers whose positions are expected to be eliminated will be notified by May 15; any staff being considered for elimination are required to be notified by that date by state mandate, he said.
“This is probably the most sobering discussion in my tenure (as a school board director),” Brian Kuh said.
“I don’t like this, but I realize it’s inevitable and something that has to be done,” board director Larry Jeffrys added.
“One of the biggest problems is waiting, finding out what’s going to happen,” he said.
The school district also has a number of “fixed” costs including insurance and utilities, and Clark said he anticipates a decline in local property tax collections that fund the district’s annual Educational Programs and Operations levy.
The COVID-19 health issue isn’t the primary driving force behind the proposed cuts, he said.
“The majority of this budget decrease stems from declining enrollment, not necessarily (resulting from) the pandemic,” Clark said.
Clark said he anticipates the Sequim student population to drop to the equivalent of 2,582 full-time students (FTEs) by September 2020; Sequim had 2,700 FTEs in June 2019 and had budgeted for 2,708 for this academic year, but that number sank to 2,618 by March 2020.
“That (2,582 budget figure) is the most conservative number we can possibly use,” Clark said.
The district received funding based on student numbers, so a drop in overall enrollment necessitates a cut in spending.
Those numbers do not include Running Start students, Clark noted, though their inclusion would not have significant impact overall as their funding primarily goes to Peninsula College.
“A majority of the students we’ve lost over the last year have gone to online academies,” Clark said.
That number may grow as families adjust to remote learning under the new coronavirus threat.
“I think there will be families out there who will look at choices like homeschool online academies … that they wouldn’t normally have done had this (pandemic) come about,” he said.
Sequim is piloting its own online academy by next fall and possibly as early as this summer, Clark noted, a move that could help Sequim bolster its enrollment numbers.
Other moves the district could make, he said, is to extend open enrollment for grades K-5 — the district doesn’t currently allow students from outside the district to enroll at elementary grades with both Greywolf and Helen Haller elementary schools at capacity — or increase the enrollment cap at Olympic Peninsula Academy.
One thing that makes him optimistic, Clark said, is that just once in the past 10 years has Sequim had back-to-back years of declining enrollment.
“The tough thing is we won’t really know that (enrollment level) until the end of August,” he said.
In the meantime, the district is obligated to let staff know their positions may be eliminated by mid-May.
Board member Eric Pickens asked what the impact would be on the district’s general fund if staff were kept at current levels combined with the expected drop in enrollment. Clark said the district would be left with between $900,000-$1.2 million rather than the proposed fund balance of about $1.9 million.