Vancouver Public Schools will immediately stop hiring for positions that are “non-mission critical,” and freeze spending on materials, supplies, travel and operating costs to prepare for an estimated $11.4 million budget deficit.
“VPS will enact belt-tightening measures to soften the effects of budget reductions next school year,” Superintendent Steve Webb said Tuesday, adding the district expects to save $1.5 million with these cuts.
Webb announced the cost-cutting efforts following the school board’s adoption of a resolution directing him to investigate possible budget cuts for the 2019-2020 fiscal year. The resolution passed by a 4-1 vote, with director Wendy Smith casting the only vote against.
Smith, a high school teacher in Evergreen Public Schools, said the resolution “may be construed” as placing blame on the district’s unions for the shortage. The resolution points to costs “stemming from collective bargaining” among the reasons for the deficit, including $7.2 million in costs from the contract agreement with the Vancouver Education Association and $2.1 million reflecting the district’s offer to the Vancouver Association of Educational Support Professionals.
“I worry people may misunderstand and feel that we are placing the blame on our employees,” Smith said.
Smith’s comments echoed what VAESP President Andrea Adams told The Columbian in an interview before Tuesday’s board meeting. VAESP and the district announced a tentative agreement last month, but the contract has not been ratified.
“Our reaction was ‘Why are you doing this?’ ” Adams said of the resolution. “Why are you shooting us in the foot? It doesn’t help anyone. I don’t understand the point of it.”
Smith’s fellow board members, meanwhile, disagreed, saying that if anyone is to be blamed for the district’s current predicament, it’s the Legislature.
“The burden of this whole situation should be laid at the feet of the legislators who created it,” director Rosemary Fryer said.
Fryer and other directors’ comments tracked district messaging from the summer, when teacher strikes led to canceled school for students in the Vancouver school district and across the region.
The state Supreme Court ruled in June that new school-funding measures adopted by the Legislature brought the state into compliance with the 2012 McCleary decision. Districts, meanwhile, maintain that the additional money, which relies on higher state school taxes and capped local levies, is insufficient to cover the costs of basic education. Though Vancouver Public Schools is one of the first districts in Southwest Washington to formally announce its expected budget deficit, it seems unlikely that it will be the last.
Webb will recommend central administrative office cuts at the Jan. 22 school board meeting, and is expected to announce all recommended cuts no later than March 31.