Grayson Huff, left, a 4th grader at Pinewood Elementary, peaks around his sign during the Marysville School District budget presentation on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Grayson Huff, left, a 4th grader at Pinewood Elementary, peaks around his sign during the Marysville School District budget presentation on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

At tense meeting, Marysville schools stare down drastic cuts to sports, more

Even with a $5 million loan, the budget is still $10.8 million short. In a budget presentation Tuesday, officials discussed next steps.

MARYSVILLE — No more sports. Class sizes of 35 to 40. All librarians cut. These are just some of the drastic measures Marysville School District leaders presented as options to a packed room Tuesday night at Marysville Pilchuck High School. The district is staring down a $15.8 million budget shortfall by the end of the school year. Even with a $5 million loan from the district’s own capital fund, approved by the school board last week, the budget is still $10.8 million short. The district will have to pay the money back to the capital fund with interest next year. The meeting was tense. Dozens of parents and children listened to Superintendent Zachary Robbins and Executive Director of Finance Lisa Gonzales lay out the financial crisis. Some attendees held brightly colored signs. “Where is the money?!” one read. Gonzales went through slides with charts showing the district’s finances, breaking down how the budget got to this point, what leaders have done to fix it so far and ideas for a way forward. At several points, audience members interrupted the presentation with questions or comments. The room erupted into shouts when Gonzales reminded the crowd officials weren’t taking questions at the meeting, directing those in attendance to write their questions on notecards and hand them in. “I understand that people are upset, because this is a very upsetting situation,” Gonzales said.
Superintendent Dr. Zachary Robbins speaks during the Marysville School District budget presentation on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Superintendent Dr. Zachary Robbins speaks during the Marysville School District budget presentation on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘No trust’ Among parents, frustration has been mounting at how school officials have handled the crisis. “I have absolutely no trust in the district,” Amy Lynn, who has two children in Marysville schools, said in a phone interview. “I have no faith in their ability to take care of our kids, to teach our kids, to keep them safe or to provide any kind of decent education.” At the meeting, Robbins framed the extreme cost-cutting measures as recommendations from the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. The district entered “binding conditions” with the state superintendent’s office in August, meaning it must work with the state to solve its financial problems. Looking at the cuts proposed by state advisers, Robbins said he felt “some of these things are essential to the identity of our community and the functioning of our district. The folks who are coming to have these conversations, they don’t care. We care. They don’t.” Options include merging schools, reducing counseling staff to minimum state requirements and closing the pool at Marysville Pilchuck High School. State advisers recommended the district cut $1 million a month, Robbins said. He added he worried about the school board “being pretty much pushed” to make some of the proposed cuts if the district can’t find new revenue sources. Pierce Butcher, 15, found the presentation disappointing. He is a 10th grader at Marysville Getchell High School. “It was never giving any answers to how the problems can actually genuinely be fixed,” he said. “It just said, here are more options. And these options suck. And we know they suck. That’s why we’re here.” His mom, Nicole Butcher, agreed. “I felt like the whole meeting was just passing the buck on to someone else,” she said. Neither was convinced by school officials’ explanations for what caused the deficit.
People fill up the Commons at Marysville Pilchuck High School for the Marysville School District budget presentation on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

People fill up the Commons at Marysville Pilchuck High School for the Marysville School District budget presentation on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘We will figure this out’ District leaders say they have been transparent with parents about the financial woes. A double levy failure last year lost the district $25 million, Gonzales said in an interview. Money from a levy approved earlier this year only starts coming in spring 2024 — and it won’t be nearly enough to solve the deficit. Falling enrollment and inadequate state funding are also factors, she said. The Marysville School District is not alone in dealing with those issues. In Washington, “every single one of our school districts is using levy funds for basic educational expenses,” she said. “The challenge with this is, that’s not what levy funds are supposed to be used for.” In addition to borrowing from the capital fund, the district also asked the Snohomish County treasurer for a $15 million loan. The treasurer declined. Leaders may go back to the treasurer to ask for another loan or borrow from a private bank. “We will figure this out,” Robbins said in an interview. “We have to figure this out for the benefit of our students and our families.” For some parents, that assurance isn’t enough. Lynn’s mistrust stems in part from what she sees as lack of communication from the district. She said her calls and emails to school officials have gone mostly unanswered.
Jalleh Hooman holds up a sign in protest at the Marysville School District budget presentation on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Jalleh Hooman holds up a sign in protest at the Marysville School District budget presentation on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Nicole Butcher, who also has two kids in the district, said officials have made false promises. In particular, she feels betrayed officials are now thinking of cutting sports. In a newsletter early this year, the district claimed the levy would help “keep and expand athletics.” “It’s hard to have good feelings about the future when there’s no trust,” she said. “They continually keep disappointing the voters, lying to the voters.” Robbins said the true scope of the district’s dire financial situation only became clear after the previous finance director left his position in February. “We were operating on information that we had at that time,” he said, which was later corrected by financial consultants. Gonzales, the new director, joined the district in July. In her previous job as chief business officer for Mt. Diablo Unified School District in California, she faced a “no confidence” resolution brought by multiple unions after the 2020-2021 school year. The unions accused her of presenting “incorrect and damaging information” to the school board and demanded the district remove her from the position. In an earlier interview, Gonzales said the allegations were untrue and a union tactic to undermine her leadership. She helped the Mt. Diablo district through a difficult financial period, she said. Last year, Gonzales received a “Business Services Administrator of the Year” award from the Association of California School Administrators.
Flyers are handed out with, “MARYSVILLE DESERVES BETTER!”, as the heading during the Marysville School District budget presentation on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Flyers are handed out with, “MARYSVILLE DESERVES BETTER!”, as the heading during the Marysville School District budget presentation on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘It feels very chaotic’ Some parents, including Lynn, consider the district top-heavy. Lynn questioned why cuts seem directed at services impacting students, rather than administrative positions. “It feels very chaotic,” Pierce Butcher said. “It feels very inequitable.” Gonzales said the district has already cut five administrative positions at its central office, but noted the remaining roles are important to keep schools functioning. “There is nowhere for the work to go,” she said. “And whether people like it or not, there is a lot of compliance and essential work that comes with running a school district that is absolutely essential.” At the meeting Tuesday, she compared central office staffing levels to six other Washington school districts of similar size, noting Marysville has fewer administrators than the rest. Lynn has other issues with how the district is spending money. For example, the district is currently pursuing accreditation for Sunnyside Elementary School through a company called Cognia. Robbins is a member of Cognia’s “global commission” that manages accreditation. The process is costing the district around $6,400.
Pierce Butcher, 15, right, a sophomore at Marysville Getchell, holds a sign in silent protest at the Marysville School District budget presentation on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Pierce Butcher, 15, right, a sophomore at Marysville Getchell, holds a sign in silent protest at the Marysville School District budget presentation on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

In an email, district spokesperson Jodi Runyon said accreditation involves reviewing “curriculum, instructional practices, demographics, and more” to get ideas to improve school outcomes. Sunnyside will share what it learns from the review with other schools. “Accreditation visits by design provide schools with independent, external feedback that helps them move from good to great,” Runyon said. Robbins’ role on the commission did not “specifically” play into the district’s choice, she said, noting Cognia charges a lower price than other accreditation companies. Runyon added Robbins is not paid for that work and “would not be involved in any accreditation review of any school within the Marysville School District.” “Since stepping into the superintendent role, Dr. Robbins’ primary goal has been improving student achievement in our district, one of the lowest-performing districts in Snohomish County,” she said. While the district is “still in a financial crisis, he is making decisions to meet the needs of students and increase academic outcomes,” she said. “These decisions are not always popular. Unfortunately, there are some who do not want to see our schools improve.”
Executive Director of Finance and Operations Dr. Liz Gonzales speaks during the Marysville School District budget presentation on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Executive Director of Finance and Operations Dr. Liz Gonzales speaks during the Marysville School District budget presentation on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

An uncertain future Parents aren’t the only ones expressing concern. Understaffing is a major issue, said Christy Tautfest, president of the Service Employees International Union 925 for those known as “10-month employees,” which includes paraeducators, food service workers and bus drivers. Paraeducators in special education classrooms aren’t even able to take breaks throughout the day, she said. She wishes school officials had communicated more about the financial problems over the summer. “They’re not listening” to community input, Tautfest said. The future of the district remains uncertain. Nancy Smith, a former director of categorical programs in the district, said Marysville families are worried. She asked: What happens if the district goes bankrupt? Parents are concerned about the quality of education their kids are going to get, she said. “I no longer work there, but I own a home here,” she said. If the school district is “dissolved, how does that affect your home prices?” In interviews, multiple parents discussed taking their kids out of the school district next year. Lynn is looking into homeschooling her kids. Nicole Butcher, however, has no plans to go anywhere. “This is the town we’re in and love,” she said. “Our kids do love it here.” Her family shouldn’t have to go elsewhere to get their kids a good education, she said. “This isn’t just a school issue, it’s a city issue.” By speaking up, she said, “we want to be a part of making it better.” Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the month Gonzales joined the district. Sophia Gates: 425-339-3035; sophia.gates@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @SophiaSGates.
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