Sequim School board to consider elementary school model shift

A proposal to shift students and staff at Sequim’s two elementary schools is coming to the Sequim School Board Monday evening.

The plan that would shift Greywolf and Helen Haller Elementary from each hosting grade levels up to grade 5 would place preschool-through second graders at Greywolf and third-, fourth- and fifth-graders at Helen Haller.

The board meets at 6 p.m. Monday, April 10, at the Sequim High School library, 601 N. Sequim Ave. Find the board’s agenda here:

The proposal is part of moves that district officials say will help balance a budget that’s expected to have a $3.6 million shortfall, or about 7.7 percent of the district’s $46.6 million annual budget.

District leaders held special budget meetings on March 13 and March 20 to outline the plan, along with other budget reduction considerations.

“There are challenging times ahead for Sequim School District, but we will pull together and make sure these challenges bring positive outcomes for our students,” Sequim schools superintendent Regan Nickels wrote in a message to parents and students on March 18.

The restructuring of elementary schools has drawn the concern of parents and staffers alike, many of whom voiced their concerns at the March budget meetings.

Sequim High School mathematics teacher Jorn (Joe) Van De Weghe said he’s concerned not only by the short time frame of the change — it’s proposed the shift happen for the 2023-2024 school year — but also the seemingly lack of input from parents and staff prior to the March meetings.

“Schools want to do something like this [are given more] than a few months,” Van De Weghe said in a follow-up interview last week.

“The parents weren’t really sought out. The majority of the staff is not for it, either.

“She [Nickels] should have asked us [and] got input from staff.”

Restructuring benefits, the ‘traditional model’

Among various staffing and department changes considered, Nickels outlined a number of benefits from re-configuring Sequim’s elementary schools.

Class sizes would be more evenly balanced, district officials said, and keeping grades levels at the same school would “meets the needs of the students in each building, without having to replicate [them] across two K-5 elementary schools.”

In addition, staff could better offer remediation services and support with fewer grade levels in each building, they said, and the shift would help students transition better into Sequim Middle School. More sections in a school at each grade level, they noted, would give more flexibility to meet students’ academic and special education needs.

”I picture a future in which a PK-2 Early Learning Center provides support and learning experiences; specially designed for 5–7-year-olds, who learn through play and early literacy experiences,” Nickels wrote on March 18. “I see a Learning Foundations Focus for Grades 3-5 in which basic academic foundations are not only built, but practiced, including reading, writing, math, communication, and social skills.”

However, Van De Weghe said, the elementary reconfiguration is being predominantly touted as necessary because it’s a cost-savings measure.

The idea that the shift would save the district a significant amount of money, he argued, doesn’t pan out in the numbers. The reality, he said, is that the move is to cut staffing numbers, and that it could be achieved without shifting the grades and staffers at the two schools in the “traditional” model.

In a chart Van De Weghe provided, four of the 25 staff positions at Helen Haller and two of the 25 at Greywolf could be eliminated in the “traditional model,” with the largest class size — Greywolf’s fourth-grade classes — growing from about 22 to 29, as that school’s grade level staff shrinks from four to three.

The total “overage” pay to staff in this model, he said, would be about $30,000, while reduction in staffing would be between $850,000 and $1.2 million — similar figures to what the district is touting with the reconfiguration model.

Van De Weghe has elementary school-aged children this change would affect.

“If you want to do elementary reconfiguration, I’m not opposed to that,” he said. “[But] I’d want it considered on its academic merits.”

Either way, he said, staff would need to be cut and the class sizes would rise above the figures that have been negotiated between the teacher’s union and district. (Van De Weghe is the chief negotiator for the teacher’s union.)

“When you do that math, there’s no savings at all,” he said.

“It’s not a savings, it’s a reduction.”

He said that if the district is set on making the elementary school change, that it be put off for a year to get more “buy-in” from parents and staff.

ESSER funds dwindle

In the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, school districts across Washington state received (ESSER) funds, short-term funding distributed to support districts through the pandemic.

These funds, Nickels noted in an email to district families on March 4, have helped in a variety of ways in the past two years, enhancing staffing levels and increasing health and mental health services (such as more nurses, health room assistants and social emotional/behavioral health specialists, etc.).

But the funds were one-time revenue streams that will soon run out. Sequim will have spent more than $7 million ESSER funds by the end of the school year. The district will have about $1.34 million remaining, though these funds have “strings attached,” she said at a March 6 Sequim School Board meeting.

At the same time, the district’s student population has not rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. Some of the district’s funding comes from apportionment based on student full-time equivalent (about $9,000 per student).

The district had about 2,566 students as of October 2022 — down from about 2,685 in October 2019. Since this past October, Nickels noted, the district lost another 24 students.

School districts across the state are facing similar budget problems, and face having to plan for shortfalls before state legislators have their budget proposals — upon which school districts depend — finalized.

The Port Angeles School District is preparing for a 10-percent reduction in its workforce, the Peninsula Daily News reported recently, as it moves ahead with plans to cut $5,692,243 from its 2023-2024 budget.

In the March budget meetings, Nickels and district staff said they’ve looked at numerous possible remedies for the budget issues. Along with the possibility that the state legislature comes through with relief funding, Sequim district staff looked into adopting a seven-period teaching day, staggering staff hours, moving to four-day work weeks, enacting furlough days, making various program changes and the reconfiguration of schools.

In a chart outlining requested budget reductions for 2023-24, district officials are seeking more than $1 million in reductions at: the district office, teaching and learning, and special education departments; elementary level and secondary level. They are also expecting about $1 million in budget reductions through certificated staff retirements.

District officials are also looking at changes to its alternative learning program, including a reduction of grade level offerings at Dungeness Virtual School, the district’s online learning system, to grades 6-12, while addressing the long wait list for Olympic Peninsula Academy, the districts homeschool student support programs. The reductions also call for reducing DVS’s certificated staff from 4.4 full-time equivalents to 1.0, and adding two DVS paraeducator positions.

Van De Weghe said there appear to be more funding for items such as special education that could come through and reduce Sequim’s budget shortfall.

The reality, he said, is even with a number of teachers resigning and retiring, Sequim will likely have to send out a number of reduction-in-force (RIF) notices, notices sent to staff indicating the district does not intend to employ them the next school year, that are required to go out in May.

“There is no alternative; you have to reduce staffing,” Van De Weghe said.

“The superintendent was clear that she is looking to make those cuts the furthest away from students [as possible],” he said.

“I do think she has student learning at the forefront of her mind.”