A student works through a worksheet Monday morning at College Place Elementary School in Lynnwood, Washington on March 7, 2022. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

A student works through a worksheet Monday morning at College Place Elementary School in Lynnwood, Washington on March 7, 2022. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Layoffs loom as Snohomish County schools face budget shortfalls

Edmonds, Mukilteo, Everett, Arlington and Stanwood-Camano plan to cut programs and eliminate jobs next school year.

EDMONDS — Cash-strapped school districts in Snohomish County are preparing to tell employees they may not have a job this fall. Some already are.

At least six — Edmonds, Mukilteo, Arlington, Everett, Stanwood-Camano and Marysville — are making plans to deal with projected multi-million dollar budget shortfalls for the next school year. Each envisions cutting programs, trimming services and eliminating positions. Layoffs will occur when reductions cannot be achieved solely through the attrition of employees retiring or moving on to other jobs.

On Tuesday night, students and teachers packed the Edmonds School Board meeting where directors held the first of two discussions on their plan to shave $15 million in spending.

“I want to acknowledge the challenges we face,” Superintendent Rebecca Miner told the standing room only crowd, some of whom hung around until the meeting ended shortly before 1 a.m. Wednesday.

On the chopping block in Edmonds are roughly 50 teaching jobs — all currently filled. So too are assistant principal posts at Oak Heights Elementary and College Place Elementary, health screeners at every school and a couple security officers. Paraeducator hours will be slashed. Four social workers, hired with federal dollars in the pandemic, will be out. But they could move into counseling positions created under an agreement with the teachers’ union.

The school board is expected to adopt the proposed cuts next Tuesday after which the district will begin notifying affected employees.

“It’s horrible. It’s a lot of hard reductions,” Director Gary Noble said.

Students and teachers appealed to him and the other directors to retain social workers considered vital to help students overcome hurdles of learning loss, mental health challenges and maneuvering toward graduation in a post-pandemic era. They also urged the board to rethink cuts of elective course offerings, such as music.

Andi Nofziger, president of the Edmonds Education Association, assailed the plan, calling proposed cuts “irresponsible, unreasonable and likely unnecessary.”

A few days earlier, she sent an open letter to community leaders, contending the district was overstating the size of the deficit and balancing “its budget on the backs of our students and classrooms.”

“Budget cuts proposed for next year by the leaders of our District put the academic, social, and emotional well-being of our students in jeopardy,” she wrote. She warned class sizes could top 40 students in upper grades due to the proposed layoffs.

“We know our community values education, our educators, and our children,” she wrote, calling on the school board to find solutions “that do not include drastic class size increases and a subsequent decrease in student care.”

On Monday, a quieter scene played out as a unanimous Mukilteo School District Board of Directors approved the path they’ll take and prospective cuts they’ll make to plug a $23.5 million hole in the budget.

A third will be made up through reduced spending in multiple areas of operation, including buying fewer new curriculum materials. The rest of the savings will come through axing of 111 full-time equivalent positions, including 31 classroom teachers and paraprofessionals. The exact number of people who might lose their jobs won’t be known until a tally of retirements and resignations is done.

“This is a very difficult situation, and we made some heartwrenching decisions that had to be made for the organization to continue operating,” Mukilteo Superintendent Alison Brynelson said in a statement. “We are very aware that each position has a face, name and livelihood attached to it and we feel the impact of each staff and their family affected by these budget reductions.”

Tory Kartchner, president of the Mukilteo Education Association, said the news “is unsettling, especially given how hard all our educators are working to meet our students’ needs. I believe that this plan represents worst-case scenario budget planning.”

“My members are concerned these reductions will impact our ability to serve our students,” he said. “It is hard to imagine serving students as well with less staff.”

Normally, staff reductions could be accounted for through attrition, he said. This year it might not be clear by May 15, the legal deadline for school districts to issue layoff notices to certificated teachers.

In recent weeks, school boards tackled shortfalls of $28 million in Everett, $5.9 million in Arlington and $8.5 million in Stanwood-Camano in a similar manner. Those districts, like ones around the region and state, are wrestling with the same confluence of factors as they work to fit within their budgets.

Enrollment is down since COVID arrived. Fewer students means less money. Except for the past couple years, the state stepped in, supplied districts with dollars to cover the decline thinking it would turn around post-pandemic. It hasn’t in many places. Edmonds and Mukilteo are among the area districts projecting fewer students next year.

Another factor is costs of providing special education services. They are rising far faster than the sum the state provides to cover them. In Mukilteo, for example, the district expects to spend $13 million in local tax collections beyond what it gets from the state.

Inflation continues to push operating expenses higher too, including salaries of workers. Salaries make up as much as 87% of costs in some districts. Federal pandemic aid is going away next year. Some districts already used theirs up. Positions paid for with those dollars will be cut unless a district can find other sources of revenue to keep those people employed.

And some Snohomish County districts will get a smaller batch of state dollars as part of reforms spawned by the McCleary school funding decision by the state Supreme Court. In simple terms, the state agreed to give some districts an extra allocation, deemed regionalization, due to higher costs of living in their area. But the sum was always intended to shrink, adding to the financial challenge of some districts.

“It was all known. But it is the timing of all of this coming together that has left districts like us in the red,” said Diane Bradford, communications and public relations director for the Mukilteo School District. “It’s a terrible situation. It is obviously not the direction we want to be going. We recognize our students have changing needs. This would be the time we’d be offering more services and support.”

Some school board directors think state lawmakers and the governor could provide more dollars through the budget. Even current proposals to boost funding for special education still won’t cover costs incurred by most districts, they said.

“It doesn’t look like the Legislature is going to do very much,” said John Gahagan, a Mukilteo School Board director since 2011. “They just don’t seem to care. I’m very disappointed.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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