A district spokesman pointed to several reasons for the 2016-17 budget deficit, including inaccurate predictions of significant enrollment growth and increases in staffing, salaries and programs that were based on those enrollment projections.
To prepare for the first day of school, a Kent school secretary tried to purchase $5,000 worth of supplies — crayons, Kleenex, paper. It was a normal order, one that wouldn’t have raised eyebrows in the past.
But this year, the Kent School District told her no, that was too much. She would only get $300.
Such stories are becoming common among Kent teachers and staff members as the state’s fourth-largest district deals with a major budget deficit — along with ongoing contract negotiations with the teachers union — less than a week before school is scheduled to start.
Kent anticipates a $6.9 million budget shortfall for the 2016-17 fiscal year, which ends Aug. 31. Most of the district’s 27,750 students will start school that same day.
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District leaders have already frozen hiring and twice approved loans — one for $10 million and one for $15 million — from its capital-project fund to its general fund, which the state allows for districts to address short-term cash needs. But that wasn’t enough to prevent ending the year with a negative fund balance.
The Kent School Board approved the district’s 2017-18 budget at its Wednesday meeting. The total budget is roughly $452 million and includes a reduction in staff positions and operating costs totaling about $4 million. There are 55 open positions in the district that won’t be filled.
The district says it is developing a recovery plan with regional and state agencies, which includes reduced spending and increased monitoring of the budget. The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) has met with Kent district leaders, spokesman Nate Olson said, and may place the district in a binding condition, a broad term used when districts have problems balancing their budgets and receive help from OSPI.
District spokesman Chris Loftis pointed to several reasons for the 2016-17 budget deficit, including inaccurate predictions of significant enrollment growth and increases in staffing, salaries and programs that were based on those enrollment projections.
“In three of the past five years, the enrollment projections have simply been inaccurate,” Loftis said in a prepared statement.
The shortfall news wasn’t a surprise to Kent Education Association President Christie Padilla, who said teachers-union members and districts leaders met every month for nearly 1 ½ years to talk about the budget.
“It was our position that if you do not change your spending trajectory, you will end up in the red,” Padilla said. “They continued their spending trajectory, so here we are, in the red.”
Kent started out the year with a $3.8 million balance, compared with the needed $15 million to $18 million, Superintendent Calvin Watts told The Seattle Times in May.
He announced in March that the district’s 43 schools each had to cut its budget by 20 percent. In April, he froze hiring and spending, including 260 school-district credit cards.
Last year, some educators were reassigned to other roles, and in some cases, put in new classrooms where they didn’t have training, Padilla said. Now, several teachers are looking for jobs in other districts, she said, but the deadline to request a release from their contract was July 1.
“Morale is definitely low,” she said. “It’s been tough.”
The union and the district are negotiating a contract, which may be for one year or two, and the district’s budget problems have made bargaining for increases in compensation and benefits nearly impossible, Padilla said.
“It’s made things extremely complicated, when the district says — and we believe them — that they have run out of money,” she said.
Both sides said they are committed to reaching a tentative agreement by Aug. 29, when union members will meet to either vote on a contract or take other action. Padilla said she won’t recommend a strike vote.
“We will come out of this stronger, we will come together and we will, I believe, come out of this successfully,” she said. “But definitely some changes at the district need to happen.”