By Robert Fincham
Eatonville School District is operating in the red. The student enrollment has been dropping for years with no signs of any future reversal of this trend. It has reached the point where the district is overstaffed based upon the state’s formula used to determine the teacher-to-student ratio, and the state has been underfunding education statewide for so long that some districts are sinking in a sea of red ink.
The low numbers of students have hit the Eatonville district’s elementary schools the hardest and is presently affecting the middle school, as well. The School Board is forced to take some drastic measures if the district is to remain financially viable while also continuing to offer exceptional educational programs.
I attended a meeting at the Eatonville High School auditorium March 27 that was well-stocked with parents and staff who made impassioned pleas to keep Columbia Crest Elementary School off of the chopping block. Emotional and passionate pleas were made to the board about the great programs being presented at CC along with its small-school atmosphere generating a feeling of family. Long bus rides for many of the CC students would become a reality if CC was to be closed. There was even a veiled threat concerning future levies if CC was closed. Then add in the fact that once closed, it could not be reopened at a future date due to lahar threats.
It was suggested that consolidating district facilities and selling property would help. It seems to me that there are a lot of properties for sale right now in and around Eatonville, and the real estate market is still depressed.
The School Board has worked diligently in the past to keep CC open. Students are bused from home closer to Eatonville Elementary School to CC in order to keep the numbers as high as they are. There is even what could be called a magnet program offered at CC to attract students.
Those are some of the positives discussed at the meeting. Every discussion has its pros and cons. The cons were not in evidence at the meeting. Let me throw a few out there:
1. The district has to cut about $700,000 in each of the next three years if state funding does not improve dramatically.
2. The district is overstaffed according to the state formula (FTE)
3. There are three elementary schools, all of which are underutilized. Eatonville Elementary has a capacity of at least 500 students with 336 attending, while Weyerhaeuser also has a capacity of at least 500 with 265 attending. I don’t know the capacity of Columbia Crest, but it is not at capacity and has 131 students attending. Any unbiased outsider would look at these numbers and think that Eatonville School District must have a great tax base to underutilize facilities in this manner. (My numbers came from a professional web site using state data.)
4. Cutting staff saves the biggest bucks.
Draw your own conclusions as to where the district can reduce costs. The financial sheet distributed at the meeting does a lot of pecking away at expenses, with RIFing (reduction-in-force layoffs) having the greatest effect. Closing Columbia Crest would save $500,000-$700,000 per year, according to that sheet. The saving comes through the elimination of the staffing at the school, since the buildings must still be maintained and heated. That reduction in staff would mean reassignment based upon seniority. Whether or not CC would be closed, the RIF would affect staff based upon seniority. So this savings is based upon doing a RIF of certificated and classified staff.
The question then becomes one of what happens after the RIF. Is the CC facility closed, or are more students bused to CC to even out the class loads while more classrooms are shut down at the other two elementary schools? Whatever happens with CC, student busing will be an issue – either to CC or into Eatonville from the area served by CC.
Some of the other options on the “Cost Cutting Options” sheet have their own problems. Many involve a reassignment of levy funds. Every levy item has its group of supporters among the taxpayers. Taxpayers in the district have long memories, and whenever a levy item is not carried through, a feeling of distrust is nurtured. There are people who vote no on levies because something was not carried through 20 years ago (something about a bus garage).
Other staff reassignments and RIFs will probably need to occur based upon student enrollment at the middle school and high school, as well.
Balancing student numbers at all elementary schools after a RIF by busing more students to CC and darkening more classrooms at the other two elementary schools is a form of fiscal insanity, and as a taxpayer in the Eatonville districit, I would like to see my money spent in a better way to enhance student learning, not to maintain surplus facilities.
Eatonville Elementary and Weyerhaeuser Elementary also have excellent programs, and students would lose nothing academically in attending them. Specialty programs can be held there as well as in any other location.
The School Board members have a hard choice to make. They are in a can’t-win situation. No matter which way they go, they will alienate voters. Choosing between fiscal responsibility and emotional pleading puts them under pressure that no volunteers should have to contend with.
The small-school, “homey” atmosphere present at CC would be lost and a void would exist in the region, but in today’s world, some luxuries are just not affordable.
Robert Fincham is a former Eatonville School Disttrict teacher. He is retired after 39 years in education.