Federal Way school district deals with potential cuts due to lack of state funding

District seeks strategic cuts to avoid possible $10 million deficit in years to come.

With the Federal Way school district board’s recent approval of the contract bargaining agreement, many say there is still work to be done – especially at the Legislative level.

The school board approved the contract on Tuesday night for Federal Way Education Association teachers and FWEA Education Support Professionals (ESP). ESP staff include secretarial and clerical staff such as office managers and finance secretaries. FWEA teachers and ESPs ratified the agreement on Aug. 30.

The three-year contract agreement is effective from Sept. 1, 2018 through Aug. 31, 2021, which matches the phasing plan of the McCleary decision.

“FWPS teacher salary schedule is informed by years of experience, higher education attainment level, and Continuing Education credits,” wrote Kassie Swenson, chief of communications for the FWPS district, in an email. “Given that our staff range in education and experience, we look at the true cost of the increase, and that is a 12.5% increase in expenditures for teacher salaries in our district for the 2018-19 school year.”

“The District’s cost for the Education Support Professionals (ESP) salary increase for the 2018-19 school year is 13.2%,” the email continued.

As mentioned in a previous Mirror article, teacher salaries were increased last year for the 2017-18 school year by 10.25 percent, due to an investment of $16 million given a year early, funded from the district’s savings account.

Combined with the finalized salary increases for the 2018-19 school year, teachers have earned a total of 22.75 percent increase of salaries in the last two years.

“We made the calculated decision to invest in our teachers,” said Dr. Tammy Campbell, superintendent of FWPS. “So they can live here and have affordable wages that allow them to be able to thrive in their communities.”

The salary increases were necessary and well-deserved, she added.

“We needed to do that,” Campbell said. “It was the right thing to do.”

Along with the salary increases come potential cuts, which are foreseeable due to the stability of the three-year contract deal, she said.

Currently, the lack of funding from the state Legislature creates a more than $30 million funding gap in the Federal Way school district, compared to surrounding districts. The funding gap in excess of $30 million derives from three major structual deficiencies:

The regionalization factor shorting FWPS at least $10 million, reductions in local levies and state Local Effort Assistance (LEA) amounts creating a $22 million funding gap, and the underfunding of special education at approximately $5 million, according to information from the FWPS district.

“For us, because we don’t get the same revenue that other districts do, we will have to make some strategic cuts to be able to sustain and afford those raises over the long haul,” Campbell said.

If there is no progress in state funding at any amount, then there is a potential for a $10 million deficit by 2020, she said.

To prepare for this potential deficit, the district plans to accommodate by making strategic reductions as needed, Campbell said, while also continuing active involvement at the Legislative level in hopes of procuring additional funds to alleviate the need for cuts.

“We probably have to trim $10, $11 million over the next two to three years so that we can sustain this investment,” she said.

Generally, reductions are attempted to be done as far away from the classroom as possible, she said.

“That’s our goal; it’s not perfect,” Campbell said. “We’ll see cuts here at the central office, I’ve already told them that. And we will see some things out in schools wherever we find opportunities that maybe something we’re doing isn’t working.”

Reductions could be seen with retiring staff or in schools when necessary, but there is a possibility it may come down to staff elimination, she said.

“There just may be times where we may have to cut positions,” Campbell said. “We don’t know yet.”

The possible cuts will not be immediate, she said.

“We’ll do it in a gradual way,” Campbell said. “But we’re starting to think about it now.”

“Legislature still has some work to do,” said Sally McLean, chief finance and operations officer for FWPS. “McCleary impacted each of the 295 districts differently.”

The negotiated contract also includes gains in curriculum, professional development, special education and school safety.

One teacher said he is pleased with the new language around the professionalism of teachers’ jobs.

“We have more input into the makeup of the site leadership team, buildings have more control over use of time on early release days, and we have more ability to adapt, adjust, and differentiate the guaranteed and viable (GVC) curriculum to meet our student needs,” said Steve Mayer, a teacher at Mark Twain Elementary who has taught in the district for 18 years.

The inequitable funding from the state is still a major concern, Mayer said, adding that “it’s simply a disservice to our students and our community.”

Other teachers also praised the contract, but noted the district still has more work to do to address other issues.

“The agreement reached by FWEA and FWPS was nothing short of life-changing,” said Brandon Hersey, a second grade teacher at Rainier View Elementary. “However, there is still much to be done in terms of creating and implementing guaranteed and viable curriculum that is rigorous, pragmatic and culturally responsive to our students of color.”

Washington state has one of the fastest-growing tech economies in the nation, yet we rank near the bottom in terms of closing the opportunity gap and preparing our kids to take advantage of the economy their parents’ tax dollars help support, Hersey said.

“Federal Way has the potential to be a leader in this space and I look forward to working closely with the district in preparing our students to be capable contributors to the growing tech economy,” he said.

Five additional early release days have been added to the calendar for the 2019-20, 2020-21 school years, with purpose directed by the principal and school leadership team, to be used in support of the FWPS strategic plan, which can include providing professional development opportunities to staff.

Caseload threshholds for special education classes have been added to reduce workload, but workload in itself was not addressed.

“For the first time we have finally been given an amazing contract with a substantial and honorable raise that will make a significant impact on my family and the lives of our members,” said Arlene Blauser, a kindergarten teacher who has been in the district for 28 years. “As a kindergarten teacher, I was disappointed not to see any language included around workload issues, specifically for kindergarten teachers.”

With significant responsibilities required of kindergarten teachers, such as programs, assessments, along with class sizes, it is still a concern and hopefully is addressed in the near future, she said.

“Having a class of upwards to 25 kindergartners with one adult is not acceptable and makes it very difficult to meets the needs of our students,” Blauser said. “We want our students to have the best start as they enter school and we need more support and smaller class sizes.”

In school safety, additional on-site meetings solely on safety have been implemented annually, as well as aid in helping schools build effective safety plans and safety communication structures, such as responding to crisis or classroom disruptions.

An issue not addressed in the agreement is the reinstatement of full-time librarian positions to all schools, said Jeanne Lunde, a librarian at Meredith Hill Elementary.

“For the past twelve years, K-12 students in Federal Way have not had full-time librarians in their schools,” Lunde said. “That’s an entire generation of students without the libraries being adequately staffed.”

In the FWPS district, three middle schools have a librarian one day a week, while the other secondary schools have a teacher, who is not a certified librarian, in the library one period a day, she said.

Only two district elementary schools have full-time librarians, while the rest of the elementaries have half-time librarians on multiple schedules.

“With full-time librarians at all K-12 schools, we can help every child be a reader,” Lunde said.

Although the contract agreement is not exactly what everyone wanted in every way, it is one of the more powerful agreements of recent years and allows the district to now focus on being more intensive on state actions, said school board member Carol Gregory at Tuesday night’s board meeting.