WASHOUGAL — While this summer hasn’t been filled with contract negotiations and labor strikes for school districts around Clark County, district officials are still working to navigate the post-McCleary world, the court decision that has altered how school funding works.
Washougal’s school board received a preliminary presentation for the district’s 2019-2020 school year at its meeting Tuesday evening. The presentation included three promises for the upcoming school year: maintain programs, maintain staff and tap the district’s reserves to “‘weather’ the post-McCleary storm.”
“We’re still facing trouble from McCleary,” Superintendent Mary Templeton said at the meeting. “We have a four-year plan we’re working through.”
The school board will continue to discuss the budget before adopting it prior to the upcoming school year. The district’s estimated budget for the 2019-2020 school year is $45.8 million.
The 2019-2020 school year is the first year in the district’s four-year plan, which will see the district’s spending deficit drop from an estimated $835,807 for the upcoming school year to an estimated $53,036 in the 2022-2023 school year. The district’s plan is to look for efficiencies to save money and to increase the local levy while weening itself off general fund spending. The estimated deficit for 2020-2021 is $424,974 and $61,592 for 2021-2022, according to the presentation made by Kris Grindy, the district’s business services director.
One change resulting from McCleary that provided some financial difficulty for Washougal was capping the local levy amount at $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value. Prior to 2019, the local levy brought in $2.74 per $1,000 of assessed property value in 2017 and $2.78 per $1,000 in 2018. Combining the local levy with the district’s bond levy, technology levy and state levy, Washougal residents were paying the district a total of $7.13 per $1,000 in 2017, $8.06 per $1,000 in 2018 and $6.56 per $1,000 in 2019.
Earlier this year, the state Legislature raised the cap on levies to $2.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value. Washougal officials plan to increase the 2020 levy to $1.98 per $1,000 with the new cap, which would bring in a total of $7.02 per $1,000 of assessed value. The district doesn’t have to go to voters to raise the levy because the most recent voter-approved levy is greater than $1.98.
Templeton said the district will have to go to voters in February to approve a renewal levy to start in 2021. The district plans to ask for about $2 per $1,000 of assessed property value.
“We don’t need $2.50 because we have this efficiency plan,” she said.
Some of those efficiencies included getting rid of an administrative position, eliminating a central office position and reductions in leadership stipends, overtime and building budgets. Templeton said that reductions and cuts affected every department in the district, and “with unintended challenges come unintended benefits.” She said those benefits were people around the district working together to make sacrifices while trying to avoid a scenario where Washougal would have to cut services for students.
Other plans for moving forward include seeking more funding opportunities and reducing a reliance on contracted services.
District officials also know that Legislative changes can affect their budget. Two services the district is mandated to supply that aren’t fully funded are special education and school employee health care plans, which have undergone some major changes recently. The district anticipates paying about $900,000 for each of those in the coming year.
School board chairman Cory Chase said he’s not a fan of how McCleary played out, but there’s not much to do about it now.
“We’re left to work within the framework they set at the state level,” he said. “It greatly impacts us here at the local level.”
Board members Angela Hancock and Donna Sinclair praised previous board members for operating with large reserve funds so if the district ever faced a financial situation like the current one, they could use reserve funds to keep programs steady while searching for more long-lasting solutions. Templeton said the district tries to operate with a reserve fund of about 10 percent of the budget. The lowest the reserve fund drops in this four-year plan is an estimated 9.4 percent in the last year.
Templeton said anything between 9 and 11 percent allows the district to maintain services without wiping out its reserve cash.
“We cannot sacrifice student achievement in these challenging times,” she said. “Our student achievement increased last year, and I’m confident we’ll do so again this year.”