Lopez school district grapples with shortfall, layoffs - Salish Current
July 7, 2023
Lopez school district grapples with shortfall, layoffs
Nancy DeVaux

Lopez Island School District anticipates about the same number of students this fall as last year — and a significant budget shortfall. Less federal funding and the state levy cap and regionalized per-pupil funding rate contribute to the challenge. (Salish Current photo ©)

July 7, 2023
Lopez school district grapples with shortfall, layoffs
Nancy DeVaux

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In early May, Lopez Island school Superintendent Ed Murray told the Salish Current that decisions about layoffs had not been made (“Island schools avoid perfect storm menacing budgets,” May 5, 2023).

At the May 15 deadline for layoff notices to teachers, Murray identified nine provisional employees (first-year teachers who do not have continuing contracts) who received notices. 

As of last week, Murray said, “We do expect to bring most of them back,” although one will likely have their hours reduced and two others were still waiting for word about continuing. 

Lopez projects 225 students in the coming year, about the same number as last year. With fewer federal funds available and funding based on a per-pupil allocations from the state, there is a $700,000 shortfall to deal with, Murray said.

Special education funding was a big concern this year, Murray said. Lopez has had 3.75 FTEs (full-time-equivalent positions) devoted to special ed, and while two of these teachers did initially receive nonrenewal letters, both have now been renewed. The legislature boosted funding for special ed, which helped, he noted. 

Murray explained that one way of reshuffling the teaching staff to help retain teachers is to move to an A/B block schedule. This reduces the number of classes to four per day instead of six, with an every-other-day schedule. A teacher will teach three classes per day but have an additional class in total due to the two daily schedules. Students will have eight classes per week instead of six, with the opportunity for additional electives, and to earn increased credits during a school year.

School board reset

Three of the five Lopez school board positions are on the ballot this year, with a primary election contest ahead for one of those. A fourth position became open too late to be included in this year’s elections so will be filled by an appointee. 

Incumbents Robert O’Connell and Kelly Carrier are running unopposed and will be on the general election ballot in November. 

O’Connell, who was appointed just over a year ago, identified three issues that impacted the budget shortfall: federal COVID-19 money going away, the levy lid and a regionalization factor based on local property values. Lopez and other island district funding is calculated on property values aligned with districts such as Mount Vernon and Burlington, where values are actually lower than in the islands.  (Read more about the levy cap: “San Juan school districts face big budget shortfalls due to levy cap,” Jan. 7, 2021).

O’Connell said he has been advocating with the 40th district legislators, but that more work needs to be done.

“We need to be together as a community, all rowing in the same direction.”

 Winnow to two

Three candidates are vying for the open position. The field will be winnowed to two after the Aug. 1 primary. 

“Schooling is one of the most important factors in a community,” according to candidate Sarah Murphy, who grew up on Lopez and has three children. She said she wants to make sure that the local school meets her family’s needs. She views the budget as a “huge problem that rests unfortunately at the state level.”

Murray said that the deficit is due in large part to the levy cap that the state has not managed to correct, and credited San Juan County council member Jane Fuller “for helping to organize and get our voices heard at the state level.” Murphy is favors going back to recommendations in a report from the Citizen Advisory Committee of Lopez School District from 2021 that she said has not been followed up on. 

Also on the ballot, Eden Rose Zillioux said she has dedicated more than 20 years to education, has been a teacher and is concerned with civic issues. She said she tends to fall on the “fiscally conservative side of things.” With experience teaching in reservation schools in the Southwest, Zillioux said she cares about equitable schools, so she “doesn’t support raising levy caps as a means of balancing the budget.” (The caps on local school district levies, imposed by the 2012 McCleary Decision, were meant to level the playing field by requiring the state to pay the full cost of basic education.)

Based on her experience creating curriculum, she believes that costs could be cut by reducing the purchase of expensive curriculum by leveraging what teachers already know and “doing something that’s more sustainable.” 

“We have a relatively small student-teacher ratio … sometimes classrooms can be larger,” she said, and still be effective.

David Kester, a 10-year resident on the island and owner of the Inn at Swift Bay, is the third candidate for the contested position. “I think I could help with the budget issue,” he said, because he has been on school budget committees and has served on other boards. He believes having a degree in accounting and owning his own business will be beneficial.

Kester said he believes that local communities should be allowed to spend the amount they choose to, and not be limited by the state, such as stipulated in the McCleary Decision. He said he was unaware of the regionalization factor that determines teacher pay.

Asked about his opinion on moving to the A/B block schedule, Kester said this would be something new, and he would need more information before weighing in. He said he understands that it gives students more choices, but he might be “concerned about contact time “ with teachers.

By appointment

To be eligible for appointment by the school board to the recently opened position, applicants must be registered voters and reside within the boundaries of the Lopez Island School District. Interested parties should submit a letter of interest to Board Secretary Edward Murray, c/o Lopez Island School District #144, 86 School Road, Lopez Island, Washington 98261 or via email to emurray@lopezislandschool.org no later than 4 p.m. on July 31. Interviews of qualified candidates will take place at the board’s regular meeting on Aug. 23.

— Reported by Nancy DeVaux

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