Deficit

Camas, WA — Camas School District (CSD) bucked the current Clark County teachers strike trend and started classes on schedule earlier this week. Negotiations between CSD and the Camas Education Association (CEA) started in May and ended on Sunday, September 2 — just ahead of the deadline that would have triggered a strike in Milltown.

Both sides agreed to a two-year deal that costs CSD $37 million in year 1, and approximately $38 million in year 2. The new deal gives teachers a 9.3% – 12.6% pay raise in year 1, which tapers off in year 2. Most breathed a sigh of relief, but this is really the beginning of the story about the impacts of the 2017 McCleary law, and how districts around the state are dealing with looming budget deficits — if nothing changes in two years.

During those negotiations, CSD alerted the public regarding the realities of future district budget deficits.

At their CSD School Board budget review session on August 13, budget forecasts revealed a 3.8% layoff projection, which was based on a pay raise of 3.1%. This is the reality of the new McCleary model. So, what does a 9.3-12% pay increase to do the budget? Our math also shows that CSD is going to have a $9 million budget deficit in 2-3 years. Here is a link to the budget forecast message at the August 13 School Board meeting, which predicts a 3.8% layoff in 2020-21:

August 13 School Board Meeting

We spent considerable time with Camas Schools Superintendent, Jeff Snell, and CEA Lead negotiator, Mark Gardner, about looming deficits. Politicians, political candidates, and others also offered their perspective on the new realities of McCleary — if left unchanged.

Kathy Gillespie, a political candidate for the 18th Legislative District, Position 2, recently said regarding the McCleary levy swipe/levy cap: “After decades of allowing schools to use voter-approved local special levies to pay for basic education expenses (violating the state constitution), including teacher salaries, the state swiped that money into the state budget, lowered the rate districts are allowed to ask for in future levy requests and restricted use of the money to state-approved expenses. This means many, many districts have lost capacity to fund current programs citizens expect. In fact, the loss is estimated to be 40% statewide and totals $1.13 billion in 2019-20.”

OSPI spokesman, Nathan Olson, says Washington will see a net decrease in funding in 2019 overall. The state solved the McCleary problem by reducing local districts’ reliance on local levies. But for many districts, it means the same or less cash, added Gillespie.

Added to the chaos is that each district has its own set of issues, and OSPI says certain districts will have it worse than others. Those districts, according to OSPI, typically have one of four qualities: 1) they already pay salaries near the state average, 2) they pay more for certificated staff than they were given by the state, 3) they didn’t get a pay bump for having experienced teachers, and 4) they’re losing 50 percent or more of their local levy capacity next year.”

Doreen McKercher, CSD Communications Director, says that Camas fits into those areas.

Gillespie continued: “Make no mistake, this chaos is a direct result of the inequities baked into the Legislative solutions passed in 2017-2018. The 2019 Legislature must uncover and systematically attempt to address shortcomings as the first order of business. Local communities must articulate their expectations to elected boards and representatives and remain engaged to advocate long after these local contracts are signed and school is back in session. I want citizens to be fully aware that decisions now to award salary increases over and above what can be sustained will potentially result in cuts as early as Spring 2019. I support our public schools and I am committed more than ever to being part of the new cadre of state legislators who will create sound policy that delivers the results we expect instead of creating the crisis we have now.”

State Representative Liz Pike, who voted against the McCleary bill, said “this is why I voted against it, because I knew it put too much stress on property owners with the biggest tax hike in state history, and that it would hurt school districts.”

Teachers

Camas Superintendent, Jeff Snell, at Prune Hill on the first day of school.

So, we asked Snell directly.

Did this new two-year deal with the teachers put us in financial jeopardy?

“Having an agreement with CEA is a very positive step,” said Snell. “This change in the funding model from the state has really created a whole new system for us to operate in. The old system really helped us, and now that’s been capped by the state. The total cost for the new contract, including benefits, is probably 12-13% over two years, which is aligned to the increased funding we received from the state. The challenge is down the road. When your organization is primarily staffing, costs will grow each year. When you look at the new funding model three or four years out, the revenue does not match up to expenses. That could be a challenge in the future if things don’t change.”

“It’s challenging for us in public schools because we always operate at the discretion or whim of the Legislature, and we operate in these two-year windows. We try to put all the resources to the students, but we also try to be thoughtful and think about the future. We have great facilities and resources, and we’ve also saved to open up new schools. For the next two years, we have to tighten our belts and look at efficiencies while protecting the programs we provide for students. We also know we have to retain and attract the best teachers, so we have to find that balance. This is why it took so long to get an agreement. I’m hopeful the state will make some necessary adjustments to the new model.”

Is this a gamble?

“There are always risks when you take on more costs for your employees,” Snell said. “You don’t go into a deal without having a plan for it, but we do need to find efficiencies and we do need to make sure the state understands the challenges of the new model.”

What are the risks?

“It’s challenging, I agree with you. We have to figure that out, which is why we pushed for a two-year deal. We need time to figure out the new system, and we need time to advocate. We’re a growing community and when we have increased student population that increases state revenue. There are a lot of factors in there. I love this school district, this is my home, and I’m not going to do anything to jeopardize that. It’s very real to me. I’m happy we’re able to come to an agreement. I know CEA understands the parameters we’re working with. CEA knows that if nothing happens from the state, we need to work side-by-side to figure this out. We have to do that with student interests first.”

Is there a $9 million CSD budget deficit looming?

“We could be entering a deficit scenario several years down the road, but we have a planned fund balance spend down, opportunities for growth in enrollment, tools such as hiring freezes, and working with our legislature to make adjustments to the new funding model and mitigate its impact,” said Snell. “It will be really important for our Legislature to look at the long-term plan for how this new funding model can be sustainable not just in Camas, but across our state. If nothing changes in two years, and you look at the way we’re funded in the district, something would have to change with that, because we can’t sustain that over time. We would have to make some cuts.”

“What’s important for our citizens to know is that we’ve used the former funding system to develop a staffing model that exceeded what the state has provided and has delivered to Camas,” said Snell. “For example, in Camas, 1.5 nurses isn’t enough for an entire district, so we’ve used local support through our levy to fund those needs. So, what this deal does is it gives us a window of time to better understand the new funding model and advocate for necessary changes. It’s important for the state to consider the staffing they provide local districts in the new model and recognize it takes more staff to get the job done. We don’t want to limit the local community. We have a four-year levy that was approved by our voters here, and the Legislature changed that. We were counting on more money from the local community, and that’s being taken away.”

Strike

There are many pieces of the puzzle to figure out how to get through the next two years.

How does CSD straighten this out?

“McCleary has been happening for seven years and many people have worked hard to advocate to where we’re at now, and changing a funding model is hard and it’s complicated,” said Snell. “I believe some of the ramifications of the new law weren’t intended, and as the Legislature comes back into session, it’s critical for me to share the impact that it’s having on our local community, and I could use your help in sharing that. To be honest, sometimes legislators get tired of hearing from me. They want to hear from their constituents. When you look at what we have here in Camas we want to be able to hold onto that. We want to keep innovating. We need to have sustainable funding.”

For his part, Gardner doesn’t think there are any budget problems.

“Camas is getting $11 million more than in previous years,” said Gardner. “State money will fill in the gaps.”

He told union members: “If anyone questions sustainability, just tell them Camas is getting $11 million more than last year.”

We asked Gardner if this deal puts the district in financial peril. He said, “No, it doesn’t — we would never want to do that.”

He said he coudn’t guarantee that, but added there needs to be advocacy to changes things in the Legislature, and that the union should work side-by-side with CSD administration.

“We have a wonderful school board that has done a great job of developing and sustaining a great school district,” said Snell. “We will find our way through this transition and continue to provide outstanding learning experiences for our students.”

Follow-up articles on looming budget issues are forthcoming, including how to advocate for special education funding, and state staffing ratios. Each article will analyze each issue, and propose solutions.

McCleary

Several CEA members avoided a strike.

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