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News / Clark County News

Vancouver Public Schools approves $35M in cuts despite community pleas

“If there were any other way, we would do something different, said board member Kathy Decker

By Griffin Reilly, Columbian staff writer
Published: March 13, 2024, 6:50pm

Vancouver Public Schools’ board of directors unanimously approved $35 million in budget reductions at Tuesday night’s meeting — despite a strong turnout from community members asking the district to find other solutions.

The reductions will see 262 staff positions cut from the district next school year.

The vote was preceded by dozens of community members expressing opposition to the cuts, pleading for the district to seek alternatives and reminding directors of the importance of what teachers do.

“I feel like we’re operating with less,” said Tina Brakefield, a bus driver and parent in the district. “And now, it looks like we’re going to operate with even less.”
Board members said their decision wasn’t easy.

“If there were any other way, we would do something different,” said board member Kathy Decker, who fought through tears during the vote.

The reductions amount to a loss of more than 113 classroom teacher positions, 33 teachers on special assignment, nearly 30 custodial staff, 10 counselors, 16 clerks and nine teacher librarians, among others. The central office will also lose nearly 20 positions.

Superintendent Jeff Snell said he will take a 15.2 percent pay cut, and all central office administrators on the management salary schedule — some of the highest-paid individuals in the district — will have nine furlough days in the 2024-25 school year.

The reductions are the largest Vancouver has had to make in recent memory. Snell and other leaders pointed to inadequate state funding, widespread inflation and the exhaustion of COVID-era relief funding as reasons for the deficit.

“We know that the work those positions do is invaluable to our district — to our students,” board director Wendy Smith said. “We hoped the state would provide more funding for our district. … Frankly, that did not happen.”

Delaying cuts

District leaders said they had seen the deficit looming for years but intentionally waited as long as possible to make necessary cuts.

The district front-loaded the vast majority of its federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding in the first three years of eligibility, leaving about $4 million for the current school year out of a total of $69 million received since 2021. The district avoided making major cuts by dipping into its reserve funding — a pool of money it’s required to keep for emergencies.

With relief funding now exhausted, enrollment projected to stagnate and costs rising, Snell said the district was left with two options: cut staff or reopen the collective bargaining agreements to see if staff would be willing to take pay cuts. The district chose the former.

Other Clark County school districts, such as neighboring Evergreen Public Schools, are also making millions in cuts this year. Evergreen is set to cut about $20 million from its budget for the third-straight year.

The biggest issue that remains, Snell said, is the state is still not fulfilling its promise to fully fund basic education. District financial documents show the state funded less than 70 percent of Vancouver’s budget for the 2023-24 school year.

“We aren’t making that up. That gap won’t go away,” said Snell, who pleaded with community members to speak with their legislators about the issue.

During public comment, some staff asked Snell if he’d join them for those conversations with lawmakers.

“Mr. Superintendent, I’m glad you recognize the need to talk to the Legislature,” said Linda Freeland, a media clerk at Columbia River High School. “So when we go, are you going to come with us?”

Community reactions

Last week, district leaders said it was not yet certain the proposed cuts would be approved at Tuesday’s meeting. Teachers’ union president Jamie Anderson, however, said she felt the decision was already set in stone.

Dozens of staff members spoke prior to the decision Tuesday. They echoed a similar theme: School staff are already spread thin; these cuts would push them further.

“As you burn out your staff, there are limited replacements. This is not a renewable resource at this point,” said Christopher Smith, a special education paraeducator at Columbia River High School, addressing the board and superintendent directly. “Have you been in a classroom with 40 or more students? If you haven’t, I believe it’s something you need to see. If you want to get spicy, I dare you to come sub for a day.”

Staff also expressed concern about the district’s commitment to prioritizing equity in decision-making. Kate Burton, a teacher librarian at Fort Vancouver High School, said cuts to library jobs will be particularly harmful at schools like her own where a larger percentage of students come from low-income families.

13 Photos
Vancouver Public Schools superintendent Jeff Snell, left, details proposed budget cuts to the district Tuesday, March 12, 2024, during a Vancouver Public Schools board meeting at the Bates Center for Educational Leadership. Near the end of the meeting, the VPS board unanimously approved $35 million in budget cuts for the district.
Vancouver Public Schools board meeting: $35 million in cuts Photo Gallery

“I wonder what components of my current duties will be cut to get the job done during the day. Because of the diverse language needs in our community, providing a place for students to be engaged in positive reading experiences is essential for Fort students,” Burton said. “It’s become an issue of social justice.”
Meghan Formel, a teacher at Sarah J. Anderson Elementary School, said she was concerned about how reductions made based on seniority could disproportionately cut staff of color.

“Retaining people is just as important as hiring them. It would show to our larger community that, yes, we do want you all to see teachers that look like you,” Formel said. “I don’t look like a lot of my kids, and I think they deserve to have adults that do.”

For more information about the cuts, visit the district’s budget challenges page online: https://vansd.org/2024-25-budget-information/.