WOODLAND — Bright sun, a taste of summer heat, a buzzing crowd of excited parents and anxious student-athletes: the scene at Woodland High School on Wednesday was a typical spring sight in this sports-loving small town just north of the Lewis River.
The school played host to the 2023 Southwest Washington Middle School League Track and Field Championships — the final track event of the year for middle-schoolers throughout the region. But although the skies were clear, the gloom of last week’s double levy failure for Woodland Public Schools promises an uncertain future for next year.
Expected to lose $3 million in critical supplemental funding for 2024, Woodland will be forced to cut middle school athletics, preventing the district from participating in a competition like this for at least two years. Custodians, nurses, classroom teachers, paraeducators and support programs for its most vulnerable students will also be cut.
“It’s pretty disappointing. You’re losing all the good stuff, the stuff that keeps kids here,” said Troy Flanagan, a Woodland native and coach at Monticello Middle School in Longview.
The community on display Wednesday wasn’t unlike what Flanagan said helped shape him as a middle-schooler in Woodland years ago. To see it go away, even just for a year, is incredibly tough, he said.
“You build so many relationships through sports,” Flanagan said. “There’s guys who are going to my wedding this summer that I met through Woodland Middle School athletics.”
A worst-case scenario
Given how February’s first attempt at passing the levy had gone, Woodland Superintendent Michael Green went into the April 25 attempt with guarded confidence, he said. But when the levy failed a second time, Green admitted it’s hard to see how the district is going to be able to provide the same level of service people are used to.
“It has not happened here for as long as anyone can remember,” Green said. “There’s no playbook for this.”
The last time a school district in Clark County experienced a double levy failure was Battle Ground Public Schools in 2006. Quickly realizing the extent of what was lost without the levy, Battle Ground voters approved a new replacement levy in the first special election of 2007.
According to data from Clark County Elections, Woodland hasn’t gone without levy funding for decades. As of 2020, data shows that 291 of 296 public school districts in Washington maintained a local levy. Though Washington promises to fully fund education, leaders from districts across the state say that claim is misleading.
“That model does not fund anything beyond a very basic level,” Green said. “An example is school custodians. We’re having to dramatically cut that custodial support, and people will expect the same level of cleanliness. The standard for funding is ludicrous. We’re not even funded for a full-time school nurse, yet the demands on school nurses are so huge.”
The district’s dual-language program and other critical programs will be canceled due to a lack of ability to recruit staff, many of whom come from outside Woodland. These cancellations, even if just for a year or two, Green said, will likely impact students years from now when it comes time to review graduation rates.
And though the district is able to use the last of its one-time pandemic-era Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding to continue summer school and academic intervention and other programs next year, Green anticipates even more cuts to such programs will have to be made for the 2024-2025 school year once that funding is gone.
Impact on athletics
The failure is expected to eliminate all 11 sports at Woodland Middle School, leaving only varsity and junior-varsity athletics at Woodland High School, and cutting bus transportation for all high school sports. Additionally, district and high school athletic director Paul Huddleston’s position will be reduced to part time.
Earlier this week, Huddleston met with Green to discuss the district’s next moves for athletics and how to cope with lost funding for 2023-24. Atop Huddleston’s to-do list is figuring out how to best keep athletic programs alive, despite fewer opportunities for students.
“We’re going to have to get creative,” Huddleston said.
In fact, Woodland will be returning to creativity that first occurred during the COVID-condensed spring seasons in 2021. Back then, Woodland didn’t have bus transportation for athletics, and instead, relied on families to get students to road contests.
Huddleston said he plans to sit down with all Woodland High coaches soon to develop a plan on how best to move forward. He said a lot of work will fall on high school coaches, but he already has a message when it comes to success: when league foe Hockinson won back-to-back Class 2A football state titles in 2017 and 2018, that district didn’t — and still doesn’t — have middle-school football.
“That’s going to be my selling point,” Huddleston said. “Don’t tell me it can’t be done — it can be done. So, how are we going to do it?”
Community remains divided
Few elections in Washington have been as close as Woodland’s levy — with ultimately just seven votes separating “yes” and “no” voters.
Those who voted “no” point to low standardized test scores, inflation and frustration with certain state-provided curriculum as reasons for their opposition.
Low test scores have been a point of contention with local levy proposals for parents and community members in recent years, as learning loss amid the COVID-19 pandemic plummeted scores across the state. Woodland, however, while trailing the state average in math proficiency, exceeds state averages in both English and science.
“The message we hope this failure sends is that the district must respond to the concerns of the families regarding school issues, respect the voter’s ability to make a decision when given the pros and cons, and prioritize teaching basic math, English, and science, to raise the test scores for better student outcomes,” said Darcy Billingsley and Donna Butler, who wrote the statement against in the election’s Voters’ Pamphlet. “Perhaps more parents will volunteer in the classrooms.”
Dan Stuart, a parent of two students in the district who cheered on Woodland runners at Wednesday’s event, said the arguments presented by “no” voters unfairly exact punishment on students for frustrations that parents might have with district or state leadership.
“Everyone will be impacted by this. Not just the athletes, not even just the students,” Stuart said. “What’s disappointing is that this failure doesn’t change anything that (‘no’ voters) disagree with. We disagree with the school district about things, too. But all this does is take funding from kids.”