School district confronts difficult financial period | Watts

  • Thursday, April 20, 2017 5:30pm
  • Opinion

The Kent School District is well known for its extraordinary students, excellent instruction, incredible diversity, cutting-edge technology, supportive community and thoughtful management.

However, like many school districts in our state, we are now faced with the exact title of the National Center on Education and the Economy’s report, “Tough Choices or Tough Times.”

Our school board and I constantly review the financial forecasts provided to us by our budgeting team. We have seen some possible “tough times” on the horizon that have led us to some “tough choices.” Beginning this month, we are implementing a spending and hiring freeze for the remainder of the 2016-17 school year. These measures, along with careful and conservative budgeting for the 2017-18 school year, will put us into a healthier financial position.

The significant enrollment growth predicted for the past several years has yet to materialize, and that directly reduces our annual funding from the state. This shortfall is made worse by state government’s repeated delays and failures in resolving school funding issues related to the McCleary case. At the same time, rising costs in materials and supplies, investments in programs, lowered class sizes, new or replacement equipment and needed increases in district competitiveness in the workforce market with improved employee compensation have added to our annual expenditures.

We identified these challenging financial trends over a year ago and took quick and decisive action. The fiscal health of KSD made it necessary to institute a spending freeze last spring for the remainder of that school year. It was a good first cost-saving step. Earlier this year, we reduced our materials and supplies budget by 20 percent. These cost-saving measures made a difference, but we are still not where we want to be or need to be financially.

It has taken several years and many converging factors to get us where we are, and it will take several years and many cooperating factors to get us back to solid financial footing. After several years of budget and staff reductions in the first part of this decade, and anticipating increases in enrollment, the district began to make strategic investments. We gradually increased staffing, compensation and programming as part of our commitment to improving the educational experience and achievement of our students as well as the working experience of all KSD employees.

Decisions are made every year about our staffing models and we negotiate compensation issues with our collective bargaining groups that often cover multi-year periods. We develop programming plans based on need and resources available and experienced and knowledgeable people make difficult decisions with the best information available at the time.

I have heard some of our community members are surprised we are facing this budget challenge with the idea that our $252 million bond, which passed last November, would support school operations. Unfortunately because our bond revenues are restricted to capital projects only and cannot be used to hire staff, pay for instructional materials, or other important expenses needed for the daily operation of our schools, we need to take these specific cost-saving measures for the next five months.

While these actions will impact KSD schools and departments, they should not have significant impact on the exceptional teaching and learning going on in our classrooms. We remain committed to being a student-centered organization excellent instruction by a justly compensated, thoughtful, caring, and professional teaching corps and support staff.

We appreciate the public’s understanding and support of our efforts to be good stewards of our resources that support the Kent School District’s students’ education.

Reach Calvin J. Watts, Kent School District superintendent, at 253-373-7701 or Calvin.Watts@kent.k12.wa.us.

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