The Longview School District must cut about $1 million in expenses this year to make up for recent pay raises for teachers, secretaries and classified staff. But district officials said they are confident they can balance the budget without layoffs, though they may have to leave some positions vacant.
That’s a very different tune from three months ago, when district officials cited budget concerns as a main reasons it resisted increasing teacher pay beyond the 6.9 percent already budgeted.
The labor agreements — which provided teachers with a 9 percent raise and secretaries and other classified staff with a 6.75 percent raises this year — will cost the district about $1 million more than planned, according to district officials. This means the district will need to cut slightly more than 1 percent of the budget in both of the next two years.
“One million (dollars) sounds like a lot of money, but in a $92 million budget, it’s not quite the level of stressor as it (would be) in a much smaller budget,” said district spokesperson Rick Parrish.
Right now, the district doesn’t have any formal plans for cuts. Parrish said the district constantly monitors the budget to balance spending with the district’s actual needs in real time.
“Instead of saying, ‘We aren’t going to buy any pencils for the rest of the year,’ we buy pencils when we need them. But if we don’t need them, we won’t buy them,” Parrish said.
Patti Bowen, finance director, said the spending reductions will be part of the ongoing process of balancing a budget.
“We are just looking at cost-cutting measures within our current year, and just monitoring our budget very closely, to try to remain within the budget ... we have actually already adopted,” Bowen said.
As it stands, the district is tentatively looking at its vacant positions as one area it can save money, said Superintendent Dan Zorn.
The district is advertising five different certificated positions (including a special education teacher, a speech pathologist and a behavioral coach) and eight different paraeducator positions. Keeping these positions unfilled would save the district money otherwise used on salaries, ultimately helping make up for the $1 million gap, Zorn said.
He emphasized that the district has not put a freeze on hiring, nor does it plan to cut jobs that are presently staffed.
The district may also look to other areas of the budget for savings, but Zorn said it was “too speculative” at this point to identify those areas.
“We are confident we are going to be able to figure out the reductions we need, and we will work hard at our advocacy for increased (state) revenue that will help us minimize any reductions we might need to make,” Zorn said.
Zorn’s confidence comes from three pieces of new information that eased some of the district’s initial budget concerns, he said.
To start, the district and staff settled with two-year contracts, which officials say gives the district a better sense of its expenditures next year. Before the settlement, there was little cost certainty because the district would have been back at the bargaining table this summer. All labor contracts are in place through 2019-20.
And it helps that one-third of the $1 million gap as already been filled, Bowen said. The district recently learned it will receive about $330,000 more in state funding due to changes legislators made to the funding model for transportation costs.
Essentially, this means the district will only need to cut about $670,000 in expenses — not the full $1 million. The extra state dollars are guaranteed for this year and next year.
“Transportation is not fully funded by the state, so we locally supplement. Now we are able to repurpose those (local) dollars, if you will, into meeting our salary and benefit obligations,” Bowen said.
Then, there’s also an increased potential that the Legislature will revise the education funding model as a whole, Zorn said.
The state appropriated nearly $8 billion more for K-12 education this year. However, the new funding model also limits revenue district can raise through local levies and left Longview without “regionalization funding” to compete for talent with larger areas. So lawmakers put Longview and similar districts at a disadvantage financially and competitively, officials said.
“We will continue to push that forward that it’s just not fair that our students in our system have access to ... 12 percent less funding on a per student basis than in some districts we are competing with in the same talent pool for teachers,” Zorn said. “There’s just an inherent unfairness that negatively impacts our students to a greater degree than elsewhere.”
Before the school year started, legislators said they would not likely address school funding issues in the near future. But after districts throughout Washington faced teacher strikes and other unforeseen challenges as a result of the new funding model, the tone changed, Zorn said. He said every legislator he’s talked to locally is now “very responsive to the discussion.”
Representatives from the Longview teachers union said they also plan to ask legislators to fix state education funding. However, they say their raises can be supported without any budget cuts, vacancies or increased state revenues.
“I think the district is showing a lot of restraint this year with the budget,” said Ray Clift, union president. “We feel they have about 2 to 3 percent in the budget for flexibility...they should be able to dip into their ending fund balance,” which is a form of cash reserve.
Parrish said the district works closely with all its employees to make decisions on district matters like the budget, and an advisory committee helps Zorn get additional feedback on the budget from different perspectives.