Moses Lake School District, teachers start discussing layoffs

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MOSES LAKE — The Moses Lake School District and representatives of the local teachers union have started talks about possible teacher layoffs next school year.

“The Moses Lake Education Association does not believe this needs to happen,” MLEA President Jeremy Pitts told members of the Moses Lake School Board during a regular meeting on Thursday. “It will create an unnecessary disruption in the lives of our students, educators and the community.”

While Pitts would not say, either during the meeting or after, how big a “reduction in force” (RIF) is being considered for the 2019-2020 school year, Grant County Sheriff’s deputy and regular attendee and speaker at school board meetings Larry Ledeboer in his public comments said the talks involved 16 elementary school teachers and seven secondary school teachers.

“I urge you not to RIF any teachers,” Ledeboer told the school board. “Our teachers and staff are the lifeblood of our district. They should not be the focus of our budget cuts.”

The layoffs may be necessary to help balance the district’s budget. Despite a major increase in state support for district budgets, the legislature has also capped local tax support for regular school operations, leaving a number of districts across the state facing looming budget deficits over the next few years.

The Moses Lake School District is looking to make roughly $6 million in cuts or savings — roughly 5 percent of its $124 million operating budget — this year. According to figures from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), the MLSD is expected to just barely break even next year, though it is expecting to have $4 million less in operating revenue for the 2019-2020 school year.

According to OSPI figures, if nothing changes, the MLSD is facing a $12.3 million budget shortfall for 2020-21, and a $25.8 million deficit in 2021-22.

Pitts said the district should use reserve funds to cover the costs of teacher pay next school year, and that the failure to do so “sends a message that money is more important than students or their teachers.”

Board member Elliott Goodrich said the district does not want to lay anyone off. But given the current fiscal realities, there may not be much choice.

“We aren’t in a position to continue to do everything. We just aren’t,” Goodrich said. “We don’t want to RIF people, that’s not the best option for anyone involved, but we’re left with limited options.”

Goodrich invited the public to contact board members and district officials with suggestions as the things the district could cut, do differently or even do better.

But after Ledeboer was harshly critical of recent spending — $1.5 million to buy the district’s new main office, $1.5 million for Chromebooks, and $2.1 million to the architectural firm designing the district’s two new elementary schools — Goodrich reminded him, and those in attendance — that such spending came from the district’s capital budget, and not its operating budget.

The current contract between the district and the teachers, which expires at the end of this school year, requires any reduction in force talks for the next school year to begin on April 1. The contract also requires the district to “first seek voluntary reduction (of staff) through leaves of absence, resignations and/or retirement before implementing a layoff.”

However, one complication in any elementary school layoffs are new classroom size limits for kindergarten through third grade. The state now requires one teacher for every 17 students in grades K-3, and schools that fail to reach that class size face a potential loss of state funds.

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