With funding questions unresolved, Olympia schools prepare for cuts

With weeks to go in the legislative session and no clear answers on school funding, Olympia School District is telling its principals to plan on having 29 fewer teachers across the district next year.

“We know there will be some relief coming from the state, we just don’t know how much and we don’t know when,” Superintendent Patrick Murphy told the school board at a Monday meeting on possible budget cuts.

The district is projecting a $8.5 million deficit for 2019-20. Under the Senate and House budget plans, which both would allow districts to collect more local levy dollars, that could be reduced to about $3.4 million, according to the district.

The district is trying to time its budget process to the Legislature’s timeline — the session is scheduled to end April 28 — but the district has to be prepared to give teachers who would be cut notice by May 15, Murphy said.

The board could vote on cuts by the end of this month. With enrollment expected to be about the same next year, cutting teachers would mean larger class sizes in some cases.

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District officials say the deficit is a result of state funding changes the Legislature enacted because of the state Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling. New restrictions on levy dollars cut its levy collection in half. The district didn’t get the bump in funding for districts in parts of the state with higher costs of living, and it lost money it had been getting for more experienced, higher-paid teachers.

Olympia isn’t alone in its budget uncertainty. The Tumwater School District, which is projecting a $4 million deficit, also is looking at possible cuts.

North Thurston Public Schools in Lacey says its deficit could be as much as $15 million, though a spokeswoman said officials there are waiting to see what lawmakers decide before they consider staffing cuts.

Aside from teachers, the Olympia district also could look at cuts in transportation, maintenance and other departments, said Jennifer Priddy, assistant superintendent for finance and operations, adding administrative cuts would be a “given.”

In a survey, parents, teachers and administrators all ranked teacher staffing as their top budget priority. Most said counseling and mental health support was their second priority, while grounds maintenance and new curriculum resources were ranked the lowest priorities.

Adam Brickell, president of the Olympia Education Association, said Olympia could avoid cutting teachers based on numbers he’s seen from the statewide teachers’ union, though it might have to leave vacant positions unfilled.

He, along with school board members, expressed frustration at having to plan for cuts while waiting to see what lawmakers decide.

“We’re forced to wait and see, and that’s frustrating for a lot of people,” he said.

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Abby Spegman joined The Olympian in 2017. She covers the city of Olympia and a little bit of everything else. She previously worked at newspapers in Oregon, New Hampshire and Hawaii.