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News / Clark County News

Clark County’s small school districts feel financial pinch, too

Washougal braces for budget cuts; Camas and Battle Ground expecting deficits

By Griffin Reilly, Columbian staff writer
Published: March 23, 2024, 6:03am
4 Photos
From left: Washougal School District Superintendent Mary Templeton joins U.S. Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, D-Skamania, and Margaret Rice, career and technical education director, during a tour of the woodshop at Washougal High School on Jan. 24. Templeton announced last month that she will take a pay cut next school year to help alleviate the district&rsquo;s $3 million deficit.
From left: Washougal School District Superintendent Mary Templeton joins U.S. Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, D-Skamania, and Margaret Rice, career and technical education director, during a tour of the woodshop at Washougal High School on Jan. 24. Templeton announced last month that she will take a pay cut next school year to help alleviate the district’s $3 million deficit. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

News of tens of millions of dollars in proposed budget reductions in Clark County’s two largest school districts has shocked Vancouver residents, prompting school walkouts and widespread letter-writing campaigns.

Last week, Vancouver Public Schools approved $35 million in budget cuts for the 2024-25 school year. Next week, Evergreen Public Schools will make the final call on nearly $20 million in cuts.

Both districts’ leaders attribute the need to make such reductions to stagnant post-pandemic enrollment levels, exhaustion of federal relief funding, inflation and inadequate state funding.

“If there were any other way, we would do something different,” Vancouver board Director Kathy Decker said at last week’s meeting.

So how do things compare for the smaller school districts in Clark County? The answer isn’t simple.

Most districts are facing deficits and echo Evergreen and Vancouver’s sentiments that insufficient state funding leaves them struggling to plug the gaps. Some will wait until this summer to publicly present budget plans.

“The financial challenge and crisis we are in is not unique to the large or small districts,” Washougal School District Superintendent Mary Templeton said. “It’s a state issue; it’s not unique to any of us.”

Battle Ground and Camas

Battle Ground Public Schools — the third-largest district in Clark County — expects to face an $8.5 million deficit for the 2024-25 school year.

A district spokeswoman said this week that a reduction in workforce is not expected; board members said during a March 11 work session that they plan to use a portion of the district’s unassigned fund balance to address the deficit.

The fund balance is a portion of the budget that all school districts are expected to maintain. It typically amounts to between 5 percent and 10 percent of a district’s total budget and is reserved for emergencies.

Other districts have relied on the fund balance as a cushion in recent years to avoid larger reductions. Vancouver, for example, withdrew millions from its fund balance over the past two years to avoid making widespread cuts.

Battle Ground said it would have more information on its deficit posted on its website by the end of the month.

The Camas School District also said it doesn’t expect to make any staff reductions and plans to use its fund balance to relieve its deficit. This school year, Camas pulled $2.6 million from its fund balance to level its budget. Next school year, it plans to pull another $7 million.

District spokeswoman Doreen McKercher pointed to a gap in funding for staff salaries as a primary reason for its ongoing deficit.

The governor’s proposed budget includes a 3.8 percent increase in salary and benefit rates for state-funded staff. Contract negotiations with Camas’ labor unions, however, include expected salary increases of 5 percent to 6.6 percent between its classified and certificated teaching staff. That funding gap, McKercher said, has a significant impact on the district’s budget.

Camas expects to release specifics about its deficit later this spring.

Washougal facing cuts

The Washougal School District, however, is expecting to make cuts to staff to relieve a $3 million deficit. The district presented a draft of the proposed cuts in February, which include a 6 percent reduction of certificated personnel and 5 percent of classified personnel.

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In addition, Templeton — who has served as the district’s superintendent since 2018 — will forfeit nearly $30,000 in salary and benefits. The move has prompted discussion among community members at board meetings in Evergreen and Vancouver this month.

“I’m asking everyone to sacrifice, to be flexible, to do what we have to do with less,” Templeton said. “That was an opportunity for me to say, ‘I’ll do it, too.’ I go to church here; I have my dentist here. This is my community.”

While Washougal isn’t dealing with a large loss of pandemic-era relief funding like Evergreen or Vancouver, Templeton said a gradual enrollment decrease has proved challenging to efforts to avoid staffing cuts.

Washougal will finalize its budget in May and present it publicly before the board in June.

Other districts

Several other of Clark County’s smallest school districts by population — Ridgefield, La Center and Hockinson — are still in the early stages of their budget preparations.

Ridgefield said it would not begin public presentations of the 2024-25 budget until this summer. A considerable factor in the district’s budget will inevitably be the results of the April special election vote on a long-term bond measure, which could bring as much as $200 million into the district to build new school facilities and renovate others.

La Center and Hockinson are similarly situated. La Center will hold its first public board workshop about its budget May 14; Hockinson is also expected to release more information in the coming months.

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