For Blaine school administrators, Monday, April 24 ended pretty much the way it started with a student walkout. A large crowd of high school students, many dressed in red to support their teachers, walked out of school before classes began and marched to the school district’s administrative offices to protest planned cuts to educators and other district staff. They walked out again at the regular monthly school board meeting held later that night after the board voted 4-0 (with one abstention) to approve the administration’s plan (Resolution 2223-08 Reduced Education Program Plan for 2023-24).
The administration had proposed cuts to the educational program citing smaller than projected student enrollment for the 2023-24 school year as well as reduced income from state and federal funding sources. State law requires school districts planning to terminate certificated employees to give notice by May 15.
In July 2022, the district adopted a budget with a four-year forecast that would put it $14 million in the red by 2026. The forecast for the 2022-23 school year alone projected a deficit of nearly $5 million with expenditures set at $45.3 million and revenue expected to be $40.5 million. In that forecast, the district also expected a $6 million deficit in the 2023-24 school year, if no program adjustments were made.
Executive director of finance and operations Amber Porter told The Northern Light in an email that the district will reduce the 2023-24 deficit to $1.2 million with this reduced education plan.
“Also, if we find any more savings in our current fiscal year, we will preserve even more programs – and that will create a larger deficit,” Porter wrote. “The goal will be to use all our resources to preserve programs and still target a minimum fund balance of 6 percent at the end of 2023-24.”
Under the plan passed by the school board, a total of 65.2 positions would be eliminated, not all of which are full-time. Of this, 38.2 are teachers, paraeducators, educational support staff, librarians, etc. Another 27 positions would come from the district office, district-wide staff, athletics, food service, maintenance and operations and transportation. Hours for the two nurses would be cut the equivalent of 0.40 FTE (Full Time Equivalents).
Staff salaries make up 85 percent of the district’s budget, Porter said.
The evening school board meeting began in the former district office located behind the newer administration office on H and Mitchell streets. The room was filled beyond capacity with the crowd spilling out the foyer onto the lawn. After an audience member asked about the room’s legal capacity, board chair Dougal Thomas proposed that the meeting be adjourned and moved to the Performing Arts Center, which had previously been prepared for a large crowd.
During the public comment period, nearly a dozen speakers addressed the board asking them to reconsider the plan to cut staff. Susan St. Claire related her family’s long history with Blaine schools and said until recently she was proud of the school district.
“Although over-estimating school enrollment was not mismanagement, using the resultant over-funding with abandon was.” St. Claire said. “That over-funding never belonged to Blaine and common sense said it would have to go back to the state.”
Tiffany Udman, a 16-year teacher at Blaine Elementary School, told the board that the “Reductions in force proposed under Resolution 2223-08 will destroy trust and exacerbate the fear that has grown steadily under current leadership,” adding the district’s ‘rainy day’ fund “far exceeds the legal minimum of 6 percent and what is considered fiscally responsible.”
Jodi Greene, one of two registered nurses, said the administration’s cut in nurses’ hours “would lead to an unsafe environment,” and said the Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s model suggests additional nurses’ hours are needed.
Using financial data supplied by the school district, longtime Blaine teacher Dan Persse cast doubt on the budget assumptions behind the district’s plans to cut staff. Citing the district’s statements that the McCleary decision resulted in a loss of levy income, Persse said the district had failed to tell the public that it had received $5.6 million in 2018 and that the district’s beginning general fund balance had grown $6.9 million since the decision was implemented.
“Last year alone the district added $3.4 million to the reserve fund,” Persse said. He then compared what the district had projected for the last four years for the beginning balance with what the actual figures turned out to be.
“My point is, the district either does not know how to forecast or is sending a different message to the community than what is factual,” he said. Persse asked the board to meet with the Blaine Education Association “to go over our financial analysis first so you can see how financially secure the district is.”
Later, during discussion of the resolution, Porter said the “district is not assured that we have adequate resources to cover our expenses” but added the district was not bound to these adjustments if there were positive changes, mentioning possible legislative developments.
“How do we become a district that serves 8.5 percent fewer students?” Porter asked the board. Referring to an earlier suggestion that the district move money from one fund to another, she said, “We aren’t actually allowed by state law to do that.”
Porter cited inflation and employee contracts coming due in 2024 as well as diminished enrollment as causes of concerns for budgeting. “At some point, we need to match up our expenses with our enrollment levels. We have legal obligations to notify our staff and that’s why we’re doing it in April. In a few months, we’ll have better information,” she said.
In response, board member Charles Gibson said, “We have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.” Thomas added, “Obviously, the last thing I want to do is to lay off teachers, but we have fiscal responsibility as a board.” At that point, various members of the audience began heckling until Thomas warned them he would close the meeting if the interruptions continued.
Calling for the vote, four directors voted “aye,” with board member Erika Creydt abstaining, saying, “One, the board hadn’t held a work session on the budget and, two, the board had been told the budget was in good shape until July and now we’re being told that it’s a crisis. My personal opinion is that we should just take more time.” Her remarks were met with a long burst of applause from the audience. “Just to be clear,” Thomas said in response to Creydt. “We don’t have work sessions on budgets, a work session is for learning. It was the desire of the board not to have one. What we talked about is, if anyone needed to learn more, then we could.”
The resolution having passed, the audience then stood up and walked out.
The draft budget will be available to the public July 10. On July 24, the board will hold a public hearing before adopting the 2023/2024 budget.
Ian Haupt contributed to the reporting of this article.
This story was updated April 27 to clarify that the district will reduce the 2023-24 deficit to $1.2 million with the adopted reduction plan. We regret the error.
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