It was standing room only in Heritage High School’s library Thursday night, as Evergreen Public Schools kicked off a monthlong series of forums on expected multimillion-dollar budget cuts in the coming school year.
More than 150 staff, parents and other community members gathered around tables, brainstorming ways to address the $15 million to $18 million budget deficit Clark County’s largest school district faces. Evergreen is considering cuts including the elimination of 49 teacher positions, 37 central administrative office positions and other support staff throughout the district.
“What we’re hoping to get out of these meetings is the contents of your full hearts and minds about what happens if this or that item goes away and how we ought to prioritize,” school board member Rob Perkins said.
With any luck, interim Superintendent Mike Merlino told the crowd, the district may not have to make cuts as steep as current projections show. Various pieces of legislation being considered by Washington lawmakers could ease the district’s expected burden, Merlino said — but in the meantime, it’s better to plan for the worst.
“What we’re really hoping is that between now and the end of April, when they’re supposedly going to end the legislative session, that the $15 million number … comes down,” he said.
Evergreen Public Schools will host a series of meetings this month to address expected budget cuts. The time, dates and locations are:
• 6 p.m. Monday, 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.
It was students who stole the show in one corner of the sprawling library, speaking passionately about their relationships with their teachers and the importance of funding programs that support them.
“These teachers are dramatically pivotal in our lives and how we learn and what we do with our knowledge,” said Mark Agard, a 17-year-old senior at the east Vancouver high school who took a break from his speech and debate club to attend the forum.
Agard told the crowd his concerns about cuts that are expected to slightly raise class sizes in some grades while eliminating clerks, assistants and instructional coaches throughout the district.
“It feels unreasonably counterproductive to increase the task that these teachers have to accomplish and at the same time reduce the external support structure for them to meet that rising task,” Agard said.
Then it was Agard’s friend’s turn. Chandler Nguyen, 18, called the elimination of support staff positions “horrifically terrible.”
“They’re really fundamental in making sure that teachers can be better teachers,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen later joked that Agard’s speech was kinder than his own, but added that it’s important for students to have a seat at the table when it comes to the district’s budget decisions.
“When you have a meeting like this where the most fundamental group of people that will be impacted aren’t present, it’s reckless,” he said. “It would be irresponsible for both myself and Mark to have the opportunity to come and voice the will of our peers and to not come.”
District staff, who kept notes as each speaker testified, will review the comments to guide budget cuts. A series of three more sessions the district’s other high schools are planned for later this month. And while Merlino said the events weren’t planned specifically so students could testify, he said that’s one of the benefits of hosting the events so close to home.
“We want to hear from everybody,” Merlino said.