The Winlock School District has started laying off staff in the face of a budget shortfall, according to the district’s Interim Superintendent Bob Garrett.
During a Winlock School Board meeting last Wednesday, Garrett told the board he expects the district to finish the school year “in the black,” but the administration is still speaking to staff about layoffs for the 2023-2024 school year.
“(We’ve) really tightened on expenses,” Winlock School Board Chair Heath Palen-McBee said during the meeting.
While the district is still facing a budget shortfall for the coming school year, during the meeting Palen-McBee said the situation “wasn’t as dire as where we were.”
Garrett told the board members that while being in the interim position has been good, and discussions with staff have been “polite and professional,” it has still been difficult discussing layoffs. Garrett also told the school board there are currently too many unknowns regarding the district’s budget situation and the board would have to forgo its usual practice of not holding a July meeting.
In an interview on Monday, Garrett told The Chronicle the Winlock School District was informed of the estimated budget shortfall during a Winlock School Board meeting at the beginning of the year, prior to his arrival, when Garry Cameron was still serving as superintendent. Educational Service District 113, a government agency that seeks to help local school districts in the south Puget Sound area, including in Lewis County, told the Winlock School District it faced an estimated budget shortfall of $1.8 million. Garrett added the district is currently still working with the $1.8 million budget shortfall estimate.
Garrett said when he took over as interim superintendent in March, he knew the district was facing budget issues, but wasn’t aware of their scale.
“I was aware there was a pretty significant concern about finances. I did not know to what extent. But found out soon after,” Garrett said.
Garrett told The Chronicle the district has already given layoff notices to six teachers and is expected to lay off additional non-teaching staff members in the coming weeks. The district has also seen some resignations and retirements, which will be considered when determining how many more layoffs the district will make.
According to Garrett, the six teachers who were laid off were what he called “junior” teachers, who he said had only one or two years of experience at Winlock. He also said because of a deadline that passed on May 15, there would not be further layoffs of teachers for the coming school year.
Garrett said further layoffs will come from classified employees, with decisions for those employees being finalized in June. According to Garrett, classified employees are those working without a teaching certificate, including bus drivers, secretaries, custodial and maintenance staff, and kitchen workers employed by the school district. In total, Garrett said he expects “six or less” classified employees to be laid off.
Garrett also discussed the positions of the five employees the district had previously considered laying off in February, which included three counselors, a migrant coordinator and a maintenance secretary. The school board had decided to keep those employees on for the remainder of the school year and reconsider their positions for the 2023-2024 school year. Garrett said those positions are now being reviewed but it’s not certain what will happen.
Garrett also said salary reductions are being considered, though no decision has been made.
Garrett said when the district replaced Cameron with himself as superintendent, the district saved about $100,000 as he works three days a week and is semi-retired, allowing the district to not pay for costs such as a pension. He also said the district office’s executive secretary resigned to pursue other career interests. With other administration staff now taking over parts of the executive secretary’s position, Garrett said has saved around another $100,000.
Garrett told The Chronicle resignations and retirements have provided the district with additional savings, as some positions will have to be refilled while others can be eliminated or combined.
In total, Garrett said five teachers and a high school vice principal have resigned, as have six classified staff members. There was also another teacher that has decided to retire. Garrett said the resignations are not necessarily due to the budget shortfall.
“(Staff members) could have had a multitude of reasons for resigning,” Garrett said.
Garrett provided the example of the high school vice principal who resigned after receiving an offer for a different job.
According to Garrett, while the layoff decisions have been difficult, the staff at the Winlock School District have handled the situation well.
“The whole pitch is pretty challenging, but I will say the folks at Winlock have been resilient,” Garrett said. “We’re doing the best we can and people are being pretty good in general. … I think people understand the situation. I appreciate their willingness to be reasonable and professional.”
Garrett told The Chronicle there were a variety of reasons for the school district’s budget shortfall, though he added he doesn’t know a lot about what happened before he came to Winlock.
One contributing cause was a failure to pay bills during the administration of the previous superintendent. The failure to pay bills resulted in the district facing unexpected payments, though during the May 17 school board meeting one district employee said the issue seems to be less of a problem.
“Feeling very good about unexpected payments,” the employee told the school board.
Another factor contributing to the budget shortfall has been a loss of state funds. Garrett said in the past the Winlock School District was considered “property poor,” and was given aid from the state through a program called Local Effort Assistance (LEA). According to Garrett, under LEA, if a district passes a levy and is a property poor district it can receive additional funds from the state. However, with new homes being added to the Winlock area, the school district is now considered about average and has lost about $200,000 in LEA funding from the state.
However, despite the the causes of the budget shortfall, Garrett believes the Winlock School District is close to meeting its costs.
“We think we’re getting close to the $1.8 million,” Garrett said.