Naches Valley School District could face $1.4 million in budget cuts next school year in the wake of a statewide K-12 school funding fix.
District officials say if lawmakers don’t come through with help, they will need to cut teaching staff, which would be a devastating blow to the district’s education offerings.
“It’s a pretty severe and very, very serious situation that we’re finding ourselves,” Superintendent Duane Lyons said of the nearly 10 percent cut to district funding. “There’s a lot of fear — a lot of real concern about losing really quality people and good teachers.”
Nearly a year ago, the state Supreme Court approved a plan put forward by lawmakers to fully fund basic education. The Legislature’s plan aimed to address concerns raised by the court’s McCleary decision, which found the state wasn’t equitably funding education.
The plan was expected to take the weight of education funding off local taxpayers, smoothing disparities between wealthy and poor communities. The state agreed to pour nearly $1 billion into education this academic year and cap local education levies at $1.50 per $1,000 of property value.
But school districts across the state have voiced concern over funding gaps created by the budget plan. The Washington Association of School Administrators found that 115 of 295 districts were negatively impacted by it.
Naches Valley was the only district from Yakima County on the list.
In the 2019-20 school year, the district — which has an elementary, middle and high school — will have $1.4 million less in revenue. This year’s budget was $17.6 million.
The hit to the district came primarily from local levy limits.
School board member Patti Hyatt said the district has had to fund staff from the local levy to meet graduation requirements that have been moved up to 24 credits rather than 19 in the last 10 years.
The community is what she calls “property poor.” This means Naches Valley needs much higher levy rates than surrounding, larger communities to draw in needed tax dollars. To cover costs, the community approved a $3.50 levy per $1,000 property value, set to expire at the end of next school year. The new $1.50 state cap begins at the end of this academic calendar.
“We lost some 57 percent of our ability to collect our levy that was voted in,” said Wandah Messinger, district director of business and operations. “When staffing is 82 percent of your budget, that’s a big impact.”
This means major teacher cuts unless something changes, said Hyatt. The middle school will likely take the brunt, since elementary schools receive added state funding protection and the high school has to ensure credit requirements are met for graduation, she said.
“It’s brutal,” she said.
The Naches Valley Middle School staff of roughly 26 regular staff could be shaved by six, said Naches Valley Middle School Principal Todd Hilmes from his office.
“I would be a principal who overnight could potentially lose a quarter of my teaching staff,” he said.
As it stands, he said, there are roughly 22 students per class. If the school were to lose six teachers, he said, this would mean class sizes of up to 35 students.
“It’s like packing sardines into a can,” Hilmes said. “That slows down learning, naturally.”
The cuts would be in core courses such as math and reading, since levy money can now only be directed to nonbasic education funding, he said.
“I would say this is pretty close to a crisis,” said Hilmes.
Naches Valley Educators Association Vice President Renae Postema Lacy said the potential cuts are a devastating reality.
“We’re still asking the district ... to keep looking and checking their numbers,” she said. “Every $100,000 we find can save a teacher. Every $60,000 we find can save a para-teacher. Our attitude is yes, we know that these cuts need to be made. But we want to make sure the numbers are as accurate as possible so we don’t make” unnecessary cuts.
In another effort to avoid cuts, Hyatt said she has been traveling to Olympia regularly for the past year to implore lawmakers to find a solution.
One potential solution, called the “hold harmless” plan, was aimed at districts on the extreme edges of the McCleary fix.
“They all assured me: ‘You’re going to be taken care of. You’ll be fine. We’ve got hold harmless. We’ve got plans in place and you’re going to be good.’ And then here we are,” she said.
Hyatt said their district of roughly 1,300 students was just big enough that it “fell through every crack there was.”
Since then, she has rallied behind bills that could minimize the financial loss, asking lawmakers from this area for their support, she said.
Senate Bill 5313, proposed by Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, could help. It would allow districts to choose between a levy cap of 20 percent of their levy base or $3,500 per student starting in 2020, if approved.
That would mean districts would be limited to a $1.50 levy cap only for the first half of next academic year, said Messinger. “That’s a half a year tax collection that we would be able to recover.”
But the fate of the bill is unclear. It failed to make it out of the Senate committee this past Friday.
“Our only other hope is that some of the language from (SB) 5313 gets amended to another bill that’s still live or to the budget bill when it comes out,” Messinger said. “It’s a small hope, but it’s all we’ve got at this point.”
Wellman said she plans to see her bill through.
“It can’t be dead. It’s required funding for us,” she said, adding discussions are still underway.
“I’d be surprised if it’s exactly what I came up with,” she added. “All I can tell you — and really the best information that I can give you — is that we’re working very hard to look at the numbers in many different ways and try to find a way to move without blowing up the entirety of what was done in 2017.”
Hilmes of Naches Valley Middle School said he had not given up hope as they awaited finalized budget plans.
“I try to be optimistic. We really don’t have all of the information from Olympia that we need yet. That’s part of the problem, is the fear of the unknown,” he said. “The reality is that McCleary — the McCleary bill — broke what was working for us.”
Editor's note: A previous version of this story misspelled school board member Patti Hyatt’s first name. And Naches Valley was the only district from Yakima County on the Washington Association of School Administrators list.