A flurry of resignations and retirements will help Kelso School District fill a $4 million budget gap next year without sharply boosting class sizes.

The district will publicly share a more detailed draft of proposed reductions in a public hearing March 25.

“The most difficult part of analyzing a school district’s budget is recognizing that 80 to 85 percent of our budget is tied to staffing,” district Finance Director Scott Westlund said Monday. “It’s very difficult to exclude staffing decisions when you’re looking at reductions. There’s only so much of those material, supplies and other operating costs at play.”

The goal is to limit staffing reductions to attrition through retirements and resignations, instead of making layoffs, Westlund said. A similar strategy proved successful almost 10 years ago when the school district cut about $3 million during the Great Recession.

Already, resignations and retirements are “coming in at a good clip,” he said. “I think if things carry forward the way they have been in the last couple months, it will be like 10 years ago.”

Initially, the district estimated it would need to cut about 25 to 30 full time positions to balance the $70 million 2019-20 budget. However, with the resignations and retirements, that number is “closer to a handful of potential” layoffs, Westlund said.

Should layoffs be necessary, the district anticipates sending out notices to affected employees on or before May 3, according to the district’s budget timeline.

Staff reductions will focus on “finding the right balance between staff locations,” and the district will try to cut proportionately across administrative, teaching and support staff, Westlund said. However, the district likely will make more administrative cuts than other areas, he said.

Superintendent Mary Beth Tack said small class sizes will continue to be a priority. Although some class sizes may grow by one or two students, they are expected to stay at or below state-required and teacher-negotiated ratios, Westlund said.

District officials are also “keeping our eyes and ears” on Olympia to see if lawmakers boost school funding, Westlund said. Bills to increase special education funding, fully fund benefit plans for school employees and increase local levy authority for schools could increase how much money the district receives from the state.

For example, about a quarter of Kelso’s anticipated deficit comes from the cost of new employee health benefits. The state may delay its mandate that schools provide those benefits, or legislators could approve additional funding so local districts avoid increased costs for the plan. These steps would save Kelso about $750,000, Westlund said.

When the district releases its draft reductions later this month, community members can weigh in on the proposal in the following ways:

  • A public hearing at 6 p.m. on March 25 in the Kelso High School library.
  • An online survey open March 26 through April 19.
  • “Listening post” meetings with a school board member and district staff member 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on April 10 and April 18 in the Kelso High School library.

“We’ve always had the philosophy of being open and transparent as much as we can,” Westlund said. “Even though sometimes that process leads to hard discussions, it’s still something we find has value.”

Superintendent Tack added that these “important decisions affect our staff and students, so we want to include as many voices to make the best decision for our schools.”

Tack will formally recommend a budget, including any necessary reductions, to the board in the first two weeks of July. No budget reductions will be approved until the board officially adopts the 2019-20 budget in August.

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