Kent School District avoids layoffs with state windfall

But schools must cope with earlier reductions

Scenic Hill Elementary fifth grader Ismail Moalim takes charge of the megaphone, leading the crowd with uplifting words on Wednesday outside of Kent School District administrative offices along Southeast 256th Street. He cites his teachers as his inspiration for attending the rally. MEGAN SAUNDERS, For the Kent Reporter

Scenic Hill Elementary fifth grader Ismail Moalim takes charge of the megaphone, leading the crowd with uplifting words on Wednesday outside of Kent School District administrative offices along Southeast 256th Street. He cites his teachers as his inspiration for attending the rally. MEGAN SAUNDERS, For the Kent Reporter

A windfall has temporally helped the Kent School District regain some footing as it continues to close a significant budget gap.

Until early last week, the school district wasn’t sure about its financial forecast as it warned of potentially laying off 127 employees, including teachers, prior to the 2018-19 school year.

But Gov. Jay Inslee signed a late-hour, new school-funding bill on March 27, which will bring an additional $75 million to the state’s fifth-largest district next school year.

The bill also improves the McCleary school funding plan the Legislature approved last year – and includes educator salary increases in the 2018-19 school year. As part of its 2018 supplemental operating budget, the state is directing nearly $1 billion toward K-12 education to finally resolve the McCleary litigation and bring the state into compliance with its constitutional obligation to amply fund public schools.

For Kent schools, the incoming revenue means averting the loss of 127 jobs as district officials continue to reassess and adjust new numbers and prepare a budget for next school year. A new budget will be presented to the board for approval in June.

“Until (House Bill 6362) was signed, we couldn’t be certain of what additional revenues were coming from the state,” said Melissa Laramie, director of communications for the school district. “Parts of that bill were vetoed … and until it was signed, everything was speculative.”

But the new revenue won’t change what already has been lost. The district announced in February the elimination of 45 central administration positions, nine school-based administrator jobs and the reduction of some employee benefits for the 2018-19 year. The cuts and reorganization represented a net savings of approximately $4 million, the school district said.

The updated budget also won’t change the fact the school district won’t fill 60 positions that will be lost to attrition.

The district ended the 2016-17 school year with a $5.6 million deficit.

The painful layoffs have angered staff, teachers and parents, especially in the aftermath of the school district successfully passing two replacement levies by narrow margins in the Feb. 13 special election.

The windfall represents good news, but the threat of layoffs and how it was implemented have strained the relationship between the Kent teachers union and the district.

“Yes, the money is good news but we’ve known about it since March 8,” said Christie Padilla, president of the Kent Education Association, which represents nearly 1,800 employees in the school district. “It’s not like it was an all-of-a-sudden surprise, but, yes, the extra money is definitely welcomed.”

The threat of layoffs and sudden announcement that there will no longer be a RIF (reduction in force) had gone too far and too long, Padilla said.

“There’s a lack of trust, and people are pretty frustrated that they had to go through this,” Padilla added. “It was pretty emotional and pretty difficult on our staff.”

For several teachers, the risk of layoffs meant looking elsewhere. Some teachers, Padilla said, have sought employment and received offers from other districts.

“The fact we’re still going to lose some beloved teachers is hard for us to accept, I guess,” she said.

While Padilla doesn’t expect layoffs in the near future, there is the painful realization that the district won’t replace those 60 employees who will be lost to attrition.

“It’s going to take a long time to build relationships between our teachers and school district,” she said. “It went on for a long time and people are really upset.”

Laramie understands the frustration and toll the district’s budget plight has had on employees and families.

“We know it’s real personal to the staff impacted by this,” she said.

The long-range plan is to make the school district financially sound, Laramie said.

Entering the 2017-18 school year as part of its budget recovery plan, the district made planned budget reductions and budgeting efficiencies. With these efforts, KSD is projected to have a positive fund balance in August, Superintendent Calvin Watts said.

“We’re still making changes, we’re still going through reductions and redesign to make sure we’re fiscally solvent, not just for (20)18-19 or (20)17-18 but for years to come,” Laramie said.

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