WHITE SALMON — Teachers, parents, and community members met March 7 in the Henkle Middle School gym with White Salmon Valley School District officials, where they expressed concern regarding how a $3.28 million budget shortfall will impact students’ education.
Since the February meeting, when the White Salmon community first learned about the extent of the budget crisis, the district has received funding through a transportation cooperative agreement with Klickitat and Lyle school districts totaling $232,000, which, combined with updated projections for general revenues and expenditures, will prevent the district from depleting the entirity of the reserve funds.
Still, the fact that the district has been spending into a reserve fund of more than $2.6 million for the past two school years was a major point of contention expressed by the community.
Previously, Superintendent Sean McGeeney said keeping staffing levels the same throughout the pandemic and during the return to in-person instruction was recommended by the governor. While enrollment has declined since 2019, which is the main driver of state funding, the number of students has not increased since the return to the classroom.
McGeeney also added that there was a “shift in philosophy” on budget management when he was hired on in the spring of 2021.
Former Superintendent Jerry Lewis set the record straight during last week’s question and answer meeting.
Lewis said he left the board a warning that if enrollment does not increase, course corrections would have to be made. He also noted that district reserve funds were sparse when he became superintendent. Lewis had served 12 years in the role.
“The way we got from $460,000 to $2.6 million was being conservative and watching. And I’ll admit I was probably over-conservative and the unions called me on it several times,” Lewis said. “My last year, I said if these kids don’t come back, it’s going to have an impact. They knew that. I tried to be as transparent as I could.”
Leslie Naramore, a parent of a student in the school district and a community member, said she felt concern for how solutions to the budget deficit will create consequences long-term, which she said could result in a loss of additional students because of teachers and staff losing their jobs and leaving the district, or because parents move their children to other school districts to find better teacher-student ratios.
Naramore also voiced concern that teachers whose positions are being cut will be of the younger generation.
Board Chair Alan Reitz affirmed that, while a decision has yet to be made, “it sure looks like we are going to be losing some of our younger teachers. I look out here tonight, and I see a lot of people who my kids had, and it’s heartbreaking.”
McGeeney responded by saying the state’s funding plan determines how the district will set long and short-term funding. The district is also examining enrollment over the next five years.
“It’s definitely in our mind as we continue to go forward with the planning is, how do we make sure to have long term success while also addressing the short term needs that are set forth in front of us,” he said.
Community members noted that McGeeney had a raise approved last year, with one seeking a response on whether he knew there was a downward funding trend at the time.
Board Member Laurie Stanton said the board was not made aware of the trend at the time.
McGeeney said prior to the question that he notified Reitz in an off-the-record conversation before the community was made aware of the conversation.
He provides budget reports each meeting but had not fully explained the extent of the problem until February’s board meeting.
“Things came to light to most of us about the same time that you all found out through the grapevine. So improving board and superintendent communication is a very big priority,” Stanton said.
District officials declined to discuss specifics of McGeeney’s raise because it is a personnel issue that can only be discussed in executive session.
Stanton added that the proposed budget for this year “looked good to us. We liked it, we approved it, and we very much kept out of these day-to-day decisions.”
Reitz said he and McGeeney had confidential conversations, “as any business. Sean is running a business educating our children. The administrators and board members, I was chairman, we talked, and I’m not apologizing for hearing what he had to say and trying to figure out what direction we were taking.”
Billy Gross, a former member of the school board, said transparency is an issue with the board. “There’s a lot of things that go on that people don’t know about that are internal … As a board, transparency seems to come up a lot. Moving forward, ask questions you need. That way you know the answers,” he told the board.
Reitz told the audience in response to a question about solutions, that there are a lot of moving parts to getting to a solution, including an ongoing legislative session and local planning sessions to determine what the priorities are.
Community member Mike Nelson called for an analysis of what occurred to cause a delay between when the shortfall was discovered and when the community learned about the extent of the issue. He asked the board to report on what happened to prevent it in the future.
Reitz said he is engaging outside sources to perform an informal review of the district’s finances, but a timeline nor a specific authority is not yet known.
McGeeney said he suspected a budget issue in July or August of the previous year, so he reached out to ESD 112 about his concerns. They received a report from ESD 112 about an exact number after winter break.
Columbia High School Teacher Caitlin Cray said concerns were not recorded in the board meeting minutes, and McGeeney responded that he engaged Reitz to plan to explain the problem during the board meeting.
“There are other districts struggling with the same things. Some of them have started rolling out different plans,” McGeeney said, adding that he and Reitz decided to raise the issues publicly at the February meeting.
Ross Henry, a community member and parent, asked if there was an itemized budget available, and how much was spent on training. McGeeney responded that $3.6 million was budgeted for materials, supplies, repairs, and other operating costs besides staffing.
Staffing currently takes up 82% of the district’s expenditures.
Reitz said that ESSER funds were planned to continue funding operations into next year, but as the district realized it was spending more money than planned, affirmed that the district would be spending ESSER, one-time COVID-19 dollars.
The district does not have data on where students went following their departure from the district. The district has lost more than 150 students since 2019, McGeeney said.
Community members voiced that the lack of transparency from the board has harmed their trust in the district and their ability to maintain the students’ level of education.
“As you’re making cuts, I want you to please consider safety and health,” said community member and parent Mandy Rae Pope.
McGeeney said he was aware of what the impacts will be by cutting teacher positions across the system and community.
Columbia High School Math and Science Teacher Kevin Liddiard asked the board how it arrived at this year’s budget, when it shows around a $500,000 loss of revenue while the district was receiving much less in revenue than planned. The district planned for $20.5 million in revenue in July, but is currently targeted for $17 million.
McGeeney said the budget projections are performed in consultation with ESD 112. He said this year’s budget included a $1.5 million capacity, which is an estimate of additional revenue and expenditures that may be brought into a budget during the year. This as well as one-time COVID-19 funds factored into the district’s revenue projections.
Parents spoke to their concern that their children’s education will suffer, to which McGeeney responded that engaging with the community will help to dive budgetary decisions. “I want to know what’s our collective value. That’s what should drive the decision for our children around the budget.”
Community members spoke about the lack of information that has been received during the meeting. “It’s mind blowing to me that the school board has been kept in dark for so long,” said community member Jana Hughes.
Stakeholder meetings will continue in the future with budget decisions to be made late April or early May.