Parents worried cuts will devastate special ed

Parents of students in special education told the Coupeville School Board they are worried that staffing cuts may devastate an exceptional program.

Nine parents spoke during the Monday night online school board meeting, which was a repeat of a meeting last week that had technological problems.

There was high interest in the Central Whidbey community about the meeting because of impending layoffs of up to 23 staff members.

In a 4-1 vote, the school board members again adopted a resolution that would cut up to 10 full-time-equivalent certified teaching positions, up to 11 classified positions, as many as one administrative position and as many as one classified supervisor or non-represented staff.

School Board Member Sherry Phay cast the sole vote in opposition.

The special education program will be hit especially hard since the reduction in force is based upon seniority. The parents said that four or five of the eight-person department will lose their jobs; they all emphasized that they are an extraordinary team of educators.

John Roberts said they’ve made a big difference in his son’s life.

“He doesn’t feel like he is different or stupid anymore,” he said, “and enjoys school again.”

Other parents stressed the importance of continuity of care for the district’s most vulnerable students.

Linsley Dix, co-president of the teacher’s union, said the members have profound concerns about the layoffs, which would mean a reduction of up to 15 percent of the teaching force.

“We believe this request is being made without clear strategic planning in an atmosphere of fear and distrust,” she said.

Superintendent Steve King and Business Manager Denise Peet discussed the circumstances that led to the financial crisis, which began before the pandemic struck. She pointed to increases in staffing costs due to raises and additional programs, coupled with revenue decreases because of falling enrollment.

Under state law, the district needs to alert teachers to possible reductions in force by May 15. King emphasized that all the proposed cuts may not have to be made in September if finances are better than predicted.

The district went from a healthy 10 percent reserve balance in the 2016-17 school year to the current 0.6 percent, Peet said.

King called the district’s current reserves “dangerously low.” He said he may not be able to pay staff if the district doesn’t receive the full levy amount next month — which is a concern due to so many taxpayers being out of work from the pandemic.

The district already borrowed $100,000 from its own capital projects fund.

King also announced that the high school principal will not be replaced when he leaves at the end of the school year. Instead, the middle school principal will take over both positions “with not much of a pay increase at all,” he said.

At the beginning of the year, the school board tasked him with bringing reserves up to 6 percent. But even with increased enrollment this school year, by this March it became clear that the district needed to make $500,000 is cuts, he said.

The district is planning for a $450,000 budget reduction due to the pandemic’s possible impact on enrollment. In addition, King said the state may decrease its funding of education because of budget reductions needed to pay for coronavirus cuts. The district is planning for a $500,000 reduction in state funding.

“I want to assure you,” King said, addressing parents, “your children will be taken care of.”