The reader board at Helen Haller Elementary School offers some encouragement this week. Officials are considering more than $2.6 million in cuts to the school district’s annual budget. (Michael Dashiell/Olympic Peninsula News Group)

The reader board at Helen Haller Elementary School offers some encouragement this week. Officials are considering more than $2.6 million in cuts to the school district’s annual budget. (Michael Dashiell/Olympic Peninsula News Group)

Sequim schools prepare for $2.6M in cuts for 2020-21 academic year

Paraeductor, teacher positions may be eliminated

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.

Teaching staff

“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.

Washington state’s heavy reliance on sales and property taxes creates an unstable funding base that feeds school districts’ local levy collections — one that funds about 17 percent of Sequim school operations, Clark said.

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.

Enrollment drop

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.

“This year is probably the most important of my career in terms of protecting the cash reserve,” Clark told board members Monday night.

“By all indications we’re guaranteed our apportionment for 2020-2021, (but) I believe budgets will get slashed dramatically for the school year 2021-2022.”

Grading approach

Students at Sequim High School won’t see their second semester grades drop from mid-March levels as a result of shifting to remote learning.

In a memo to staff, SHS administrators detailed the district’s grading approach as school administrators looks to create a common grading, credit and communication expectations.

“The initial and overriding expectation for our students is that they continue their learning during this challenging time,” they wrote. “We need to consider the myriad of experiences they are going through, however, and approach this with grace and mercy.”

Students can improve their second semester grade from mid-March through remote learning, but they can also choose to receive a “pass” rather than a letter grade, they noted.

“We will determine a deadline and a process for students to make this choice,” SHS staff wrote.

No student will receive a failing grade for any second semester course, though they may receive an incomplete depending on the coursework completed (or lack thereof).

“Students need to be making ‘reasonable’ progress on virtual or remote learning opportunities,” SHS administrators wrote. “The idea of ‘reasonable’ should be individualized and based on your knowledge of students’ abilities, access to resources, and efforts during this time.”

Students who were failing classes by March 16 and “who also demonstrated no effort to engage with remote learning opportunities for the duration of the 2019–2020 school year” will receive a No Credit on their transcript/report card.

The district must provide materials for students to improve their grades during this time of remote learning, administrators noted, and must communicate with the student and family before assigning a No Credit for the course(s).

On Monday, board directors expressed concern regarding the approach and asked if education leaders would provide a baseline standard for grading across Washington state.

“I’m guessing the state us going to come out with a statewide guidance that will override some of this,” Jeffryes said.

Clark responded, “I hope you are right. I hope the state comes out with some specificity of guidance. In the meetings I’ve been in, I’m not optimistic about that.

“It would be healthy and very appropriate for the state (to provide guidance on grading) … but I’ve been led to believe that they’re not going to make that decision, that they’re going to leave it to local control. I hope I’m wrong.”

Students in grades K-8 will receive a pass or no credit, Clark noted Monday, rather than a course grade.

Diploma alternatives

The Washington State Board of Education on April 8 adopted an emergency rule that allows school districts across the state to apply for more flexibility in awarding diplomas to high school seniors impacted by the mid-March closures.

The rule, with state board approval, allows public schools, charter schools and tribal compact schools to waive certain state graduation requirements for individual students. Districts must make a “good faith effort” to give students opportunities to complete credits for high school graduation, state officials note.

Sequim school board directors approved applying for the wavier 5-0 on Monday night.

“In this difficult time, our state’s students come first,” State Board of Education Chair Peter Maier said in a press release. “By adopting these rules, we considered the many high school students who otherwise would face great limitations due to this historic pandemic. These new rules give flexibility to let school districts support students now, while honoring the student work done before school buildings closed.”

The new rules also allow private schools to waive credit-based graduation requirements for individual students and waive school day and instructional hour requirements for the 2019-20 school year.

Applications for the waiver, state board officials noted, should be available online by today, Wednesday, April 15. The state board plans to host a special meeting on April 21 to review the first round of applications

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