Today is the deadline for school districts across the state to notify their teachers and teaching specialists about any non-renewal of contracts or layoffs. Local school districts have had to make plans for next year that not only address current budget struggles, but also that plan for reductions in students and funding due to impacts felt from the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
In Hoquiam, Superintendent of the Hoquiam School District Mike Villarreal said they were able to bring back 14 of the 18 certificated staff who had received letters last month warning that their contracts would end with the school year. He said that since sending out those notifications, the district has seen a couple of resignations and retirements, and administrators have circled back on finances to “make it happen next year.” He added, however, that they worry about the following year like everybody else.
The larger Aberdeen School District said earlier this month they will have to cut the equivalent of 46 teaching positions to close a nearly $6.5-million projected gap in the budget. Some of those cuts will be non-certificated staff like para-educators who will learn their fate in June, others will be teachers like Eric Peterson who’s been with the district for 17 years and worries about the cost of these cuts to school programs like music.
The district reduced the number of full-time music teachers from 7 to just over 3 with the non-renewal of contracts for Mr. Peterson as well as band and vocal teacher Troy George and Orchestra teacher Carl Johnson. Mr. Patterson and Mr. Barene have been reassigned and Mrs. Koski is evaluating an offer, and all of them had to share their fates with their students over zoom meetings this week.
Aberdeen School District Superintendent Dr. Alicia Henderson said this morning that instrumental music and chorus programs will continue at the Junior High and High School. Henderson said the district continues to be very committed to the music program, and that none of the reductions they’ve made have been easy. She added, “It’s a result of the way the state funds us, the state does not fund us for any extracurriculars other than basic education and we have incorporated Dan Patterson and Nick Barene into the basic ed funding, but that’s it.”
Mr. Peterson worries that without a grade school music program students won’t become interested in music, he said last night, “We’re working hard trying to serve the needs of our kids and without the foundation at the elementary level it will pretty much eviscerate the secondary programs.”
While I was fortunate to be involved in the Aberdeen music boosters public meeting last night, there are so many other teachers affected by this that I was not able to interview directly before preparing this article. Emotions (and allergies) ran high last night as I saw tears on the faces of people who have instructed my children and yours in choir, band, and orchestra for (at least) the past 2 decades.
“This week I have been informing all of my students about the future of the program,” said Carl Johnson, Orchestra Director for the district who will not be returning next year.
Mr. Johnson walked into a classroom full of broken hearts last year to teach orchestra after the untimely passing of Karen Miekle. He said last night, “I really don’t think I’ve been planning anything for this upcoming year mainly because the orchestra program will no longer be at the Aberdeen School District next year. Which is a tragedy and it’s devastating to see after this last year of what they’ve endured.”
Dr. Henderson explained this morning that Johnson is a provisional staff member, meaning that his 1-year contract was simply not renewed as part of the cost-cutting measures. OSPI explains that teachers new to the profession or new to Washington public school teaching generally remain in provisional status for the first three years of their employment. But if Johnson, for example, moves to another district the provisional “clock” starts over again for him.
“Plan for the worst and hope for the best” appears to be the only legal route. Codified by years of contract and union negotiations, and the legal requirement to remain financially solvent, it appears easier to let a teacher go and bring them back when you can afford them. Henderson explained that May 15th is a contract deadline for contract renewals, but new contracts can be created whenever the district can afford to fill positions. She said, “We can always bring people back, but what we cannot do is make a decision now that is a commitment we cannot honor because we don’t have the money.”
Henderson said the district was warned by the state to prepare for at least a 10% reduction in levy collections due to defaults and delays, adding, “We’re very anxious to see what that is because potentially some of those music positions could be restored.” She explained that the reductions made by the district were levy expenses that come from our property taxes, and are governed by the state legislature.
Meanwhile, Johnson said last night that after just moving to the area, he’s faced with starting over again or hanging onto hope that the budget improves. He said he’s finding a lot of that hope in his students and their parents who want to help, “Whether that is writing letters. One passionate student that is very active in the middle school program and choir and orchestra. She’s wanting to start this petition thing that her mother are setting up. So it’s really great to see these kids and how much they care about the program, wanting to give back to it and see it still exist.”
Teachers and supporters are encouraging parents and students to write to the district administrators and OSPI officials. Dr. Henderson also encourages people to write to OSPI and to their elected officials. She also suggested that concerned citizens monitor verified sources for accurate information, noting a recent letter from OSPI to an Aberdeen parent that she expects to see answered later today.
The district is also forming an FAQ related to budgeting in the coronavirus era. Watch their website at asd5.org for details.
Below is information on the current board members at Aberdeen School District:
A “Rally To Save Our Schools!” is being organized to show support for Aberdeen teachers, they plan to meet (with covid-precautions) at the Aberdeen School District Office on G street at 5 PM on Monday