Christine Cobb, a third grade teacher, participates in a no extension chat during a rally before a Marysville School Board meeting on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Christine Cobb, a third grade teacher, participates in a no extension chat during a rally before a Marysville School Board meeting on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Over protest, Marysville superintendent’s contract unanimously renewed

Zac Robbins inherited a district now facing a $5.9 million deficit. Dozens of parents and staff alleged a lack of transparency to fix the problem.

MARYSVILLE — Outside the Marysville School District central office, more than 80 staff members and parents held signs and marched Monday night to protest the extension of Superintendent Zachary Robbins’ contract.

At the school board meeting afterward, the board voted unanimously to secure Robbins’ place atop the district through June 2027. Board member Wade Rinehardt was absent.

The protest was the latest sign of a crumbling relationship between school officials and some parents and staff as the district faces a $5.9 million deficit.

The crowd of mostly district staffers chanted slogans as passing cars honked in support.

“We will not be silenced!!” read one sign.

A car drives by a rally outside of the Marysville School Board on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

A car drives by a rally outside of the Marysville School Board on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

During the board meeting, attendees packed the room and delivered passionate speeches.

“Although the district continues to insist they are being transparent, time and time again we find that to just not be true,” said Becky Roberts, president of the Marysville Education Association and an organizer of the protest, during public comment.

The superintendent may not be directly to blame for all the district’s problems, Roberts said in an interview, “but he’s the one in charge.”

“The buck stops with him,” she said.

One public commenter spoke in support of Robbins, noting his impressive resume, including advanced degrees from Howard University and Boston College.

“He stepped into a big mess,” said the commenter, who identified himself as a longtime Marysville resident whose kids attended schools in the district. “He’s making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, although (a) thread at a time.”

He faced loud boos from the crowd after finishing his comments.

The Tulalip Tribes Board of Directors sent a letter supporting Robbins. School Board Vice President Connor Krebbs read the letter aloud at the meeting.

“The current superintendent is picking up the pieces of system that deteriorated through decades of neglect,” the letter read. “The problem didn’t arise overnight, and the solution won’t be quick either.”

In an interview, Christy Tautfest, one of the rally’s organizers, cited understaffing and inconsistent communication from the district about its budget as among the issues fueling the protest.

Christy Tautfest speaks during public comment at a Marysville School Board meeting on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Christy Tautfest speaks during public comment at a Marysville School Board meeting on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Tautfest is president of the Service Employees International Union 925 for those known as “10-month employees,” which includes paraeducators, food service workers and bus drivers.

Both the “10-month employees” union and the teacher’s union have voted no confidence in the superintendent and the district’s central office administrators. An online petition to stop the board from extending Robbins’ contract had over 1,000 signatures Monday night.

One point of contention was the district’s beginning fund balance for the current school year. In the budget for this academic year, the district estimated it was starting the year with $1.4 million.

In a November board meeting, finance staff announced the actual fund balance was $9.8 million. The budget is presented in July, but the district doesn’t close the books until October, Executive Director of Finance Lisa Gonzales explained at the meeting Monday night.

At the meeting, the board voted to send the updated balance to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. The district has been in so-called “binding conditions” with the state agency since August, meaning it must work with the state to solve its financial problems.

In August, the district’s projected deficit was $17.5 million for the end of this academic year.

Now, thanks to the adjusted fund balance and “the financial team’s work to implement systems, including collaboration with the state and the Northwest Education Services District,” the projected deficit has shrunk to $5.9 million, according to a district press release sent out Monday morning.

According to Tautfest, the size of the budget deficit seems to keep changing, with little transparency as to why.

She said it feels like school district leaders “really just don’t care.”

Amber Buehler came out to protest Monday night. She’s a former paraeducator in the district and used to be president of their union, she said. She’s now working in Everett Public Schools.

Buehler said she’s seen the relationship between parents and staff and district leaders worsen since Robbins took over in the summer of 2022.

“The community deserves better,” she said.

In an interview, Krebbs, the board vice president, stressed he is a “strong believer that the right to protest is an important tool.”

The district is making progress in improving its finances and academics, he said, noting Robbins has not been with the district long. Extending the superintendent’s contract is standard procedure, he said. If the school board had voted not to extend it, the district’s problems would not have gone away.

After a series of levies failed, the passage of a pared-down four-year levy in 2023 has put the district’s budget on somewhat firmer footing — but the district had to wait a year for those tax revenues to be collected.

Still, the numbers “don’t make sense,” said Jalleh Hooman, a parent in the district who was also one of the rally’s organizers.

The district’s budget is inflated, she said, and school officials haven’t had an answer when labor unions have questioned them about why the projected spending in certain budget categories is so high.

In an email, district spokesperson Jodi Runyon wrote the district was going through “a leadership transition in our finance department” at the time this year’s budget was being developed. Gonzales, the current finance director, joined the district in July, after this year’s budget was completed.

“Staff did the best they could under the circumstances and built a budget based on past revenues and expenditures and estimates in the same area to address the rising cost of doing business,” Runyon wrote. “This made it appear that the budget was ‘inflated,’ as we have heard. Steps have been put in place to make the necessary corrections. This has created changes in the numbers nearly daily.”

“School district finance is complex,” read the district press release sent Monday.

“As any organization operates throughout a fiscal year,” the release said, “the bottom line budget numbers fluctuate as revenues come in and expenditures go out, which can create confusion, especially for those not directly involved in the day-to-day financial operations of the school district.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated when the district announced the actual beginning fund balance, misspelled Lisa Gonzales’ name and the month Gonzales joined the district.

Sophia Gates: 425-339-3035; sophia.gates@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @SophiaSGates.

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