Kent teachers, students concerned as school district weighs cuts

School board working to come up with solvent budget for next fiscal year; provisional teacher force trimmed

Calvin Watts. REPORTER FILE PHOTO

Calvin Watts. REPORTER FILE PHOTO

The Kent School District (KSD) did not renew contracts for 21 provisional teachers last week as it continues to tighten its financial belt and prepare a budget for the 2019-20 fiscal school year.

The cuts are part of a district-wide reduction of 60 positions made through natural attrition from the current fiscal year that ends Aug. 31, a move school leaders spelled out in February 2018.

The district has made strides in reversing a trend of deficit spending. After beginning the 2017-18 school year with a fund balance deficit of approximately $5.6 million, the district said it ended the fiscal year with a positive ending balance of $29,496.

Again, the district is looking at cuts as the school board shapes the next budget. But many teachers and staff, parents and students are upset, confused as to why cuts are being proposed and exposed when the financial climate for state and public education has improved.

The school board has a work session at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 15, at the administration center, 12033 SE 256th St. It will be live-streamed for public access and available on the school district’s YouTube channel.

Just how the school district’s 2019-20 fiscal budget plays out will be influenced by state legislative changes, actions of which are expected to be discussed in the work session.

“We’re all unpacking that, and all districts are impacted by the legislative decisions that were made,” said Melissa Laramie, director of communications for the school district. “We’re all working to figure out what those impacts are. And Kent’s no different. Our starting point may have been different than other school districts with our fund balance, but we’re as equally impacted by the legislative decisions as every other district.”

District Superintendent Calvin Watts, in an open letter addressed to the KSD community, wrote, “Budgets for all buildings, communities and teams for 2019-20 are being reviewed for priority, strategic alignment and sustainability as the district budget is prepared for board approval.”

Last year, the Kent School District got some help from the state. It received approximately $74 million for K-12 educator salaries, a result of the McCleary Supreme Court ruling, leading to a pay bump for Kent teachers – a 10 percent raise for the current school year, 4.5 percent the next year – as detailed in a two-year contract.

District officials said the state windfall needed to be set aside to cover the future, uncertain financial health of Kent’s classrooms.

‘Frustrating’ cuts

Provisional teachers, who contractually had to be notified by May 15, received notices last week, Laramie said.

The new teachers were hired last school year to fill vacancies throughout the district – the result of an exodus of instructors who left Kent schools for better-paying positions elsewhere.

The latest cuts are upsetting, said Christie Padilla, president of the Kent Education Association, the union that represents about 1,500 district teachers.

“They hired newer teachers, most of them on conditional certificates … and they promised these teachers two years and in return they had to go to school and get their teaching certificates,” Padilla said. “These teachers had four-year degrees but didn’t have their teaching certificates. These people taught, entered into a teaching program, and the Kent district has let them go due to financial reasons.

“It’s sad because some of these people were recruited out of state. They came out of state, entered into a program here and now they are told they have no jobs,” Padilla said. “So they’re halfway through their teaching program and they have no job and they have nowhere to go because they are not from this state. That’s frustrating.”

According to Watts, in his letter, provisional teachers were “reviewed in four areas: performance concerns, misconduct issues, working in a building that was overstaffed, failure to meet requirements of their conditional certificate. In some cases, a provisional teacher qualified for two of the four areas. After review, 21 provisional teachers were identified for non-renewal for one or more of these areas.”

Padilla said the district let go “good teachers,” jobs that could be saved if the district intends to comply next year with the state-funded Lower Class Sizes for a Quality Education Act. The law requires that school districts maintain low class sizes and boost staffing support for students. When fully implemented, class sizes for grades K-3 will be no more than 17 students.

“The district has been collecting that money, but there’s been no accountability for the 1 (teacher)-to-17 (students) class size,” Padilla said. “Basically, they haven’t been hiring the teachers and collecting the money. … This district has not committed, at this time, to collecting that money and implementing (lower-class size). They say it’s less cost effective for our kids to lower class size, even though the state sends the money for it. … They are not willing to do it at this time, so that’s why people are so angry and upset.”

Where to cut?

The KEA is also concerned the school district will cut successful and popular programs, such as music and drama, and coveted electives.

Leslie Hamada, a school board candidate, takes iGrad, a program that needs more space, to heart. The public, online, alternative school – which serves about 375 students in grades 9-12 – has worked wonders for the district since opening in 2012, Hamada pointed out. In that time, she reported, iGrad students have earned 25 associate degrees, 424 GEDs, 248 diplomas and 75 industry certifications.

At a recent school board meeting, Hamada testified against the district considering the purchase of Thoughtexchanges, a community intelligence software program that empowers leaders to ask open-ended questions and get answers in real time. The product will run close to $100,000 to purchase, license and administrate for the district, Hamada said, money that would be better spent at keeping iGrad running and growing.

“That amount of $100,000 is roughly close to the $75,000 in question needed to lease for a year the needed additional space for iGrad. Space needed to take down barriers to equity. Space needed to fulfill your mission: to educate all students,” Hamada told the school board. “Reconsider where you are putting your money … into kids or into software?”

Michele Bettinger, who also has entered the school board race, questions the district’s commitment to music programs. She claims the district has failed to live up to its obligation to fund music since taxpayers approved Proposition 1 in February 2018, a levy that was intended to support music and other programs.

Anticipating cuts, Bettinger is proposing that the community step up and make up the difference by raising revenue itself.

“Equity for all students means maintaining the current level of music,” Bettinger said. “Some parents can afford after-school music programs for their students, but many cannot, and we want to ensure that those who want to continue in music (no matter the size of the class) can do so.”

Students respond

Kris Hill, an English teacher at Kentwood High School, said students are deeply concerned about cuts. Students have reached out to speak to school board members at recent Community Conversation forums.

“Students are frustrated with the lack of information they’re getting when they ask district leaders as to why these programs are being cut after a levy was promoted last January as necessary to maintain staffing levels as well as clubs, music and arts programs, among other things,” Hill said.

Kentwood students are also planning events to raise awareness in hopes they can convince the school board and the district leadership to restore cuts, Hill said.

Padilla has lauded the district for making made good decisions in turning around its budget plight. Still, the budget battle continues, and more hard choices need to be made.

“Last year at this time we were $10 million in the hole. Right now, we are $23 million in the good … that’s a $33 million swing,” Padilla said of her estimation of the district budget. “I will give credit that they have made better choices and they have tighten our belts, but they have gone to the extreme now where they are actually hurting children (by) cutting a program.”

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