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News / Clark County News

Evergreen school district approves $18.7 million in budget reductions

Teachers union announces vote of ‘no confidence’

By Griffin Reilly, Columbian staff writer
Published: March 27, 2024, 11:10am
7 Photos
Audience members applaud after community feedback Tuesday evening at an Evergreen Public Schools board of directors meeting at district headquarters in Vancouver. The board voted to approve $18.7 million budget cuts to the district next year &mdash; a move met with disdain by parents and community members who said they hoped the board would seek other options.
Audience members applaud after community feedback Tuesday evening at an Evergreen Public Schools board of directors meeting at district headquarters in Vancouver. The board voted to approve $18.7 million budget cuts to the district next year — a move met with disdain by parents and community members who said they hoped the board would seek other options. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The Evergreen Public Schools board of directors voted 4-1 Tuesday night to cut $18.7 million from the 2024-2025 school year budget, including 151 staff positions, as it addresses a deficit.

The resolution will eliminate 45 teacher positions, 22 teacher librarians, dozens of classified support positions, middle school deans and more. The district’s deficit is due to stagnant enrollment, the loss of pandemic-era federal relief funding, inflation and inadequate state funding, district leaders said.

“The only feeling I have left about it is that it’s not a positive change,” said board President Rob Perkins. “Cutting 22 librarians is not a good decision. … It’s the least bad decision.”

The decision shocked and disappointed parents and community members at the meeting. Many of them said they held out hope their weeks of pushing back against the proposals would lead the board to reject the plan for cuts. As the resolution passed, several in the audience walked out.

“I was hopeful some of them might vote ‘no,’ but I guess not,” said Angie Bunda, a parent of two Evergreen students. “I felt like we had an opportunity to invest in our kids and I learned we’re the only ones who wanted to invest in them.”

The final cuts slightly varied from the district’s initial proposal after it received additional money from the state Legislature in March and found a way to save money by cutting several software licenses. The district retained middle and high school security staff, as well as fifth-grade band and orchestra staff.

Parents at the meeting Tuesday said it’s still not enough, and expressed confusion as to why the initial cuts were presented before the district knew how much additional money it might receive from the state legislative session.

Evergreen Education Association president Kristie Peak announced during the meeting’s public comment segment that her union’s governing body decided on Monday to ask members to approve a no-confidence vote in district leadership.

That’s the result of years of frustrations coming to a boiling point, Peak said. She pointed to several contentious bargaining sessions and the payout to former Superintendent Mike Merlino in 2021.

Preparing for cuts

This is the third consecutive year Evergreen has cut more than 100 positions across the district. Two years ago, it made $20 million in cuts. Last year it cut $19 million.

Evergreen’s cuts follow those in other districts. Earlier this month, Vancouver Public Schools approved $35 million in cuts. The state’s largest district — Seattle Public Schools — is facing a deficit of more than $100 million.

Since December, Evergreen has collected 2,700 responses from community members about what they’d like to avoid losing due to budget reductions. Survey results show respondents — students, staff and families — most wanted to protect small class sizes, special education services, and student extracurricular programs like music and arts.

Perkins said this year’s budget development process was the most intensive and transparent process in his time on the board since 2008 — a point that’s been repeated in district budget presentations this spring.

Staff and community members questioned the claim, arguing that the final reductions still didn’t reflect the priorities they expressed in surveys throughout the winter and spring.

“Wage freezes at the district office have still never been suggested, but you’re talking about gutting librarians that are integral to education and literacy and higher graduation rates among Title I students,” said Kathryn Fertick, a parent.

The cuts to teacher librarians remained a point of contention for both parents and staff members, who said student reading and writing comprehension has plummeted since the pandemic. State testing data backs the claim: 37.6 percent of Evergreen students were meeting proficiency standards in English language arts in the 2022-2023 school year, compared with 49.7 percent in 2018-2019.

“Countless studies show that school libraries help students with reading,” said Adam Bullock, a parent in the district while addressing the board. “You were voted to be the voice of the people. Send that proposal back. Just because there’s a vote doesn’t mean you have to vote ‘yes.’ ”

Moving forward

The lone “no” vote came from board Director Gary Wilson, who was elected in November. Wilson said he learned it’s “easier to be on the other side of the room” when it comes to hard decisions and that he had decided to vote based on thoughts presented from the community, rather than his own beliefs.

“I appreciate the work the (administration) team did to alleviate three of the biggest concerns, but I am disappointed for the community’s sake we couldn’t come up with a compromise for the librarians,” Wilson said.

Evergreen will have until mid-May to inform staff whose positions are being cut. The final budget will be brought to the board in July and then adopted officially in August.

After spring break, the Evergreen Education Association will hold a building-by-building vote among its membership on the no-confidence resolution. The vote is symbolic but represents a “complete lack of faith” in district leadership among staff, Peak said.

“I don’t take the district seriously anymore when they’ve cut the very foundation of literacy in our district,” said staff member Adam Aguilera, who presented the resolution alongside Peak.

The resolution and community response to the cuts prompted brief discussion and reflection among board members toward the end of the meeting.

“How are we going to come out of all this loss with a better system?” Perkins said. “How are we going to create and foster a more collaborative relationship with stakeholders, who at this moment are very enraged?”

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