Camas, WA — Following last year’s historically significant and what many call flawed school funding legislation, known as “McCleary,” which led to teacher’s union strikes, months of intense labor negotiations, and projected budget deficits, school districts are navigating their way through it now — and are dealing with unique financial realties.
Vancouver Schools last week reported an $11.4 million budget deficit and they are taking measures to deal with it. Camas is dealing with the similar issues, but on a smaller scale — $3.2 million. Districts across the state are in the same boat.
“The way McCleary is written, it leads to a lot of local interpretation, and it’s creating chaos in school districts all over the state,” said Camas School District (CSD) Superintendent, Jeff Snell, last August, at the height of labor negotiations. “We’ve been warning residents it will create budget deficits in Camas, which will result in cuts.”
At the time, Camas Education association (CEA) lead negotiator, Mark Gardner, a Hayes Freedom teacher, said Snell’s statement was a “scare tactic.” Gardner didn’t believe a deficit would materialize, and said Camas hires more staff than the state mandates.
Senator Ann Rivers said the law was designed to create equity over time, but what happened at the end of the session is that it took out the steady ramp-up in funding.
”All of the structure and guidelines that we put in were removed,” said Rivers. “So when that happened it became a big pot of money and all contracts were opened up. That’s where the strikes came from. I hope not to offend any of you, but this big pot of money was like dragging a doughnut through a fat farm. People dove in and they wanted it, and then you had the union reporting a 25 percent increase in pay, which was not truthful. Then other teachers saw that, and they wanted it. It was all based on mis-information. There was never a 25 percent increase, but that became the standard, so all of the structure that would have involved a steady ramp up was removed.”
Gardner’s perceived “scare tactic” is now reality, as CSD Budget Director, Jasen McEathron, stares down a $3.2 million deficit in 2019.
“I think we all have a good idea of what’s on the horizon,” said McEathron. “Cuts are coming. Next year, we’ll dip into reserves.”
McEathron has been warning the CSD School Board for months, and Snell has been warning the public since last Spring of McCleary’s impact.
“The CSD board established a budget in August based on best information we had at that time,” said McEathron. “Subsequent to passing that budget different labor contracts were settled. We’re analyzing that now, and looking into what kind of budget extension will be required.”
He continued: “Looking ahead to next year and beyond under the current funding formula we see the need for adjustments. That’s why we’re having the superintendent budget committee, which includes our labor groups, PTA, PTO, school board, co-chairs Mary Tipton and Mike True (CPA), Boosters, CEF, three members of the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC), and three community members.”
In total, 25 people are meeting every other Tuesday beginning January 15 at 5:30 pm at JDZ Conference Room B. These meetings are expected to last four months, and they are open to the public. Tuesday’s meeting was more about background and “how we got here,” said McEathron.
Their objective is to create a set of considerations for Snell on how to best manage the budget deficit, and look to the future.
“It’s designed to bring a diverse set of stake holders to gain a better understanding of district finances,” said McEathron.
Doreen McKercher, CSD’s Communciations Director said: “We want create ownership and have these committee members be there for three years. We identified groups and then invited them.”
Adding to the mix is the current labor negotiations with the Camas Association of Educational Office Professionals (CAEOP), which is in their second mediation, and represents 34 staff members.
CSD didn’t get into CAEOP negotiations until after teacher’s negotiations were completed. Following that will be contract negotiations with the Public School Employees (PSE) union, which is for all Classified staff: bus drivers, custodians, maintenance, para-educators.
“In the February or March timeframe we will do a budget extension,” said McEathron. “We will have to dip into reserves, and the amount hasn’t been determined. Legislatively, we do have priorities for the region, which is through ESD112, and we will be advocating for changes to the funding model, and one of them will be special ed funding. We have seen in the Governor’s proposed budget they are suggesting changes to levy limits and increasing those. Both take a nuanced approach to that. We want clarity around regionalization, from our perspective it doesn’t make sense that we need it, but then don’t need it in two years. So, we have some funding factors, with state funding going up at an inflationary factor of 2 percent, but then it’s offset.”
Some districts in the state qualified for enhanced funding to compensate for the experienced staff that they had. Camas, which has a veteran teaching staff, didn’t receive that enhanced funding. They will seek additional funding there.
Gardner said he expects Shelly Houle, CEA president, to work closely with Snell to lobby local legislators to address holes in the legislation.
At the end of the CEA teachers contract ratification meeting last September, Gardner said: “One of her goals [Houle’s] is to march shoulder-to-shoulder with Dr. Snell to let legislators know exactly what their inaction or pantomime action has done to districts throughout the state, that’s one of her goals …”
On the Washougal side, their Washington Association of Educators leader, Eric Engbretson, said “the McCleary legislation was originally funded by the WEA and some of the state unions to get that decision passed to fully fund education to fulfill the constitutional mandate by the Supreme Court … but with that they had good intent, but what came out was not a mixed message, but not as clear as we would have liked to have seen, and I think it’s tied the district’s hands in some ways, it’s tied the union’s hands in some ways, so that could have been part of the issue for some of the tensions, but we fully believe this is pass-through money, other districts are saying ‘no, no, no we can use it how we want’ so we hope that this gets revisited soon so we don’t have to do this again.”
Going back to Camas, there’s also been a lot of talk about attrition, said McKercher.
“It seems unlikely we’ll have to manage budget deficits through attrition alone, so the budget committee will come up with considerations to the Superintendent,” she said. “Logistically, the Superintendent is charged with providing a budget to the school board for their approval. The committee makes the considerations. The School Board will be present at the budget committee meetings.”
The budget committee will look at attrition, but they’ll also have to see where they can cut three to five percent, and they’ll have to find answers to several questions:
- What are the tough decisions for the long-term?
- How do we continue to serve a growing community?
- How do we be innovative while meeting the expectations of the community that have grown over time?
- Where will we be in 20 years?
- What are the infrastructure requirements to support a growing population?
- What are the required funding amounts to open new buildings in the future? Camas doesn’t get funding from the state to open new buildings. A lot of research goes into specifications for those new school buildings.
- How many more schools will be needed to serve a growing population?
“We’ll have a budget extension of the current year, and then for next year they will need to set staffing in April for next year,” said McEathron. “Middle of May is the deadline for CEA.”