South Whidbey school officials discuss funding woes

Audience members, district leaders engaged in two-hour discussion on finances, community involvement

Only eight or nine community members showed up to the South Whidbey School District’s community forum Wednesday night. The meeting was initially intended to consist of table discussions and a Q&A session, but due to the low attendance, it was turned into a simple Q&A session.

Despite the disappointing turnout, audience members and district leaders engaged in a two-hour discussion on financial issues, community involvement and more.

According to early estimates, the district might have to reduce the 2024-25 school budget by $1 million, or about 5%, Assistant Superintendent of Business and Operations Dan Poolman said during a board meeting in April.

May 15 was the last day to notify certificated staff, for the most part classroom teachers, all of which had been hired temporarily, while classified staff — like receptionists, custodians, paraeducators, bus drivers and food service workers — will be notified of the reductions later in the school year.

“The majority of the cuts are as far away from students as possible,” School Board Director Brook Willeford said in an interview.

Despite the difficult situation, South Whidbey is one of the few districts that is not on Northwest Educational Service District 189’s financial watchlist because it was able to keep a steady fund balance over the years, according to Superintendent Josephine Moccia.

As for many schools across Washington, the imminent cuts are the result of such factors as declining enrollment, rising inflation, the state’s flawed school funding model and unintended consequences of the infamous McCleary decision, according to district officials.

In 2012, the Washington State Supreme Court found that the state wasn’t adequately funding school districts, which were forced to resort to levies. According to the court, this was unfair as it put districts in wealthier areas at an advantage as they could collect more tax money.

McCleary established schools can collect tax money based on the number of pupils enrolled. Five years ago, school levies were generating about $4.5 million a year for the district. Despite rising property values, declining enrollment has caused that amount to drop to a little more than $3 million annually, Poolman said at the forum.

If the district still collected $4.5 million, there would be no budget deficit, he said.

Instead, the district has seen the costs increase, such as insurance costs ballooning by about 40% over the past few years, while state funding has only increased by 1.9% this year.

With such limitations, it has become more difficult for districts to meet state rules and the increasing needs of students and staff.

Currently, Poolman said, the district counts fewer than 1,100 full-time students. Some attendees believe enrollment has been declining because of the unprecedented behavioral and emotional issues they have been experiencing in the post-lockdown era, which Board Member Andrea Downs said teachers and paraeducators are not prepared to deal with. But, as Moccia said, there isn’t adequate funding for mental health specialists to address these new issues.

Substitute paraeducators don’t get the same training as the regular paraeducators, Willeford said in the interview. Currently, he said, the district is looking into ways to get them that training.

The district is also required by state law to provide 12 days of sick leave for every district employee. The state, however, only provides funding for four days for certificated staff and no days at all for classified and administrative staff.

Though most schools are struggling, the legislature has become “tired” of hearing about education, Moccia said.

“It is still their paramount duty, but it has fallen off their radar because they think they solved it,” she said.

Every year, the board sends the legislature a written list of funding priorities and writes several letters to lawmakers. Over the past few years, the district has sent a delegation of board members, students and administrators to Olympia.

Willeford said the district’s priorities brought to the attention of the legislature include lifting the levy cap and increasing funding for special education, staff benefits, materials, supplies and other costs.

Recently, in part thanks to the advocacy of school leaders, Rep. Clyde Shavers and Rep. Dave Paul, the legislature passed a bill allowing for allocations for both the state’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program and the transitional kindergarten. This was a victory for the district, Willeford said in the interview, because last September the district launched its first ever District Inclusive Transitional Kindergarten program.

Board Member Joe Greenheron clarified districts don’t ask for specific dollar amounts. Instead, they simply want funds to be allocated fairly across the state and for the funding model to be fixed.

Board Member Marnie Jackson, who is also the board’s legislative representative, said the district could see better results by nurturing relationships with representatives between legislative sessions, holding some pre-session workshops with the community, and better updating the community during legislative sessions.

An attendee said local governments should have more control over funding matters. But as Poolman explained, the only way to do that would be not taking any money from the state and figuring out a way to come up with $18 million, which is how much the district gets from the state — and represents the vast majority of the funding the district gets, Willeford said.

Another attendee said the community should use its voice and directly contact the representatives. Moccia said she has heard other districts recommend the creation of “key communicators,” a group of people who can pressure the legislature by gathering information from the community and then writing letters to lawmakers.

While community members can make comments during business meetings and have two-way conversations during workshops, attendance has been low for some time, especially since the pandemic, Willeford said, with the exception of some community rallies.

An audience member said she has felt unheard by the board on multiple occasions and that many parents she knows have lost interest in attending because they feel their opinions don’t matter.

Willeford said he would be happy to discuss ways to regain the trust of those stakeholders. At the same time, he said, he has heard different kinds of feedback, from unhappy community members to people who are appreciative.

The board also acknowledged the local median age is between 58 and 60 years old, so the district needs to find a way to encourage those demographics to attend meetings and provide feedback. Additionally, older demographics mean those people are less likely to have school-aged children to enroll, Willeford said.

Another audience member said parents need child care in order to be able to attend meetings.