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News / Clark County News

Evergreen Public Schools ponders how to make cuts of up to $18 million

Interim superintendent strives for ‘transparent process’ going forward

By Katie Gillespie, Columbian Education Reporter
Published: March 4, 2019, 6:01am
2 Photos
Evergreen High School in the Evergreen Public Schools district.
Evergreen High School in the Evergreen Public Schools district. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Evergreen Public Schools faces as much as an $18 million budget deficit. But until now, the district has been relatively quiet about that fact.

Interim Superintendent Mike Merlino wants to change that.

As Vancouver Public Schools has made public announcements of expected cuts responding to its $14.3 million budget deficit, former Evergreen Superintendent John Steach was sending internal emails to staff alerting them of possible reductions, including the elimination of more than a dozen administrative office staff positions.

But following Steach’s sudden resignation last week, the district is “resetting.”

“The biggest thing is that we’re moving forward, we’re resetting, and we’re really interested in a transparent process,” Merlino told the district’s board of directors Tuesday evening.

Public meetings

Evergreen Public Schools will host a series of meetings in March to address expected budget cuts. The time, dates and locations are:

• 6 p.m. March 14, Heritage High School, 7825 N.E. 130th Ave., Vancouver.

• 6 p.m. March 18, Evergreen High School, 14300 N.E. 18th St., Vancouver.

• 6 p.m. March 21, Union High School, 6201 N.W. Friberg-Strunk St., Camas.

• 6 p.m. March 28, Mountain View High School, 1500 S.E. Blairmont Drive, Vancouver.

Merlino estimates the district is facing between a $12 million to $18 million shortfall for 2019-2020. He wouldn’t go so far as to say previously announced cuts won’t happen, noting that “the reality is we still have to get to the number we have to get to.”

But district officials plan — and have already started — to meet with principals, union leaders and parents to develop a slate of cuts in a more public, collaborative process. A series of public forums are scheduled this month to pull families into the conversation, a call back to the “listening sessions” the district held during the budget cuts of the Great Recession.

Merlino blames a “perfect storm” of issues contributing to the budget deficit at Clark County’s largest school district. Among them are increasing labor costs, including last fall’s approval of a multimillion-dollar contract between the district and the Evergreen Education Association. Enrollment in the district is expected to decline by about 295 students, a function of smaller incoming kindergarten classes, stagnating housing development in the suburban district and families leaving due to rising rents.

But largely to blame, superintendents at affected districts across the state say, is the Legislature’s response to the McCleary decision. The 2012 state Supreme Court case ruled that the state was failing to fund basic education. The court closed the case last year following an overhaul of the state’s school funding that injected nearly $1 billion into school districts.

Evergreen Public Schools, for example, is slated to receive $369.6 million in general fund revenue in 2019-2020. That’s up $25.6 million from the $344 million in revenue the district received in 2017-2018, pre-“McCleary fix.”

Much of that money, however, is allocated for specific programs, Merlino said, such as those serving students who are scoring below grade level on state tests or for career and technical education. And with local levy dollars lowered and capped at $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed property value, districts say their costs are higher than their revenue.

Evergreen Education Association President Bill Beville, however, remains unconvinced.

“Until we get clarity from the current legislative session, we still have not established a need for any cuts,” Beville said. “We’re not on board that they need to make cuts, especially to certificated staff.”

Furthermore, he said the union is not going to help the district identify certificated staffers — primarily teachers — whose positions could be eliminated.

“We have good contract language about people as far as seniority goes,” Beville said. “We’re not telling them ‘cut this position or cut these before you cut those.’ ”

Still, Evergreen is not alone in its projections of a budget deficit. A Seattle Times analysis suggests that 253 of the state’s 295 districts face a budget shortfall for the 2019-2020 school year.

Vancouver Public Schools Superintendent Steve Webb has coined the state’s school funding model the “McCleary mess,” and has used his public platform to push legislators to adopt policies that will put more money back into school districts.

“If the Legislature doesn’t act on a comprehensive set of solutions to provide full funding for basic education, vital programs and services that serve students will be at-risk throughout the state,” Webb said in an email to staff last month.

Columbian Education Reporter