ashland.news
July 21, 2024

Ashland School Board cuts at least $1.3 million from budget, including athletic director and up to two dozen classified staffers

Ashland School Board member Eva Skuratowicz, left, shares her thoughts as Jill Franko, center, and Russell Hatch, right, look on during a meeting held Thursday evening. Ashland.news photo by Holly Dillemuth
February 12, 2024

Enrollment drop of 300 students creates $3 million revenue gap; classified union rep says ‘We are in a financial crisis’

By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news 

At least 13 and as many as 24 classified employees of Ashland School District will be laid off at the end of the school year in June, according to district Superintendent Samuel Bogdanove, following a vote by the Ashland School Board on Thursday to cut $1.3 million from the 2023-24 general fund budget of approximately $40 million.

The cuts won’t impact teaching jobs, but will largely affect educational assistants hired during the COVID-19 pandemic with the help of federal funding. Reductions are prompted by various factors. One of the biggest causes is the district’s loss of 300 students since the end nearly five years ago of open enrollment, which allowed students to enter into the district without permission, leading to the loss of about $3 million, according to Bogdanove, who retires in June

“In (school year) ’19-20 prior to COVID … we were about 2,850 students or thereabouts,” Bogdanove said during the board meeting.

The student population has since dropped to between 2,500 and 2,550 students, Bogdanove said, or 11 to 12% fewer students.

“A hundred students is roughly the equivalent of a million dollars, so those 300 students equate to about $3 million,” he said. That’s a loss of approximately $10,000 per student.

The district also loses federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding this year, which paid for hiring additional staff to navigate requirements put in place during the pandemic.

The outgoing superintendent told Ashland.news in an interview following the meeting that all classified staff have already received a notice about the potential for layoffs. 

Those who will be laid off will learn about it by spring break in March, he said, in an effort to allow them to plan accordingly. 

Those who receive layoff notices will be encouraged to apply for open positions not funded by ESSER dollars, according to Bogdanove.

Athletic Director Patrick Grady, who was hired in the fall of 2021, has also been notified he will be laid off in June, Bogdanove said. The position will be absorbed by Assistant Principal Francisco Lopez Atanes. Bogdanove doesn’t anticipate impacts to athletic programs.

The board next meets for a regular meeting on March 14.

Before voting to start the budget-cutting process, ASD Board Vice-Chair Jill Franko offered condolences to district staff and those who will be affected by the cuts.

“I know this must be challenging for staff to be kind of in this in-between space,” Franko said. “(For) the people you see up here and on the screen (two board members took part online), this was a really hard decision. There were tears, there was loss of sleep, there were really intense, hard conversations, and everyone up here, I can say with integrity, understands the magnitude of this decision and took it very seriously and we did the hard work.”

Ashland School District staff attended a budget presentation on Monday, Feb. 5, McLean said, and many are concerned about making $1.3 million in budget cuts by the end of the school year in June.

Vice-chair Jill Franko addresses those attending an Ashland School Board meeting Thursday evening. Ashland.news photo by Holly Dillemuth
Union reps sound off regarding budget, member needs

Tia McLean, representing Ashland Education Association (AEA), the Ashland School District faculty classified union, didn’t mince words Thursday, telling Ashland School Board members about the impact on teachers and classified staff from planned cuts in staff, which the school board approved later in the meeting.

“This is the largest avoidable financial crisis the Ashland School District has (experienced),” McLean said. “We were blindsided by SB (Senate Bill) 819, but declining enrollment, the loss of ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funding, nutrition services debt, increased insurance costs and overhiring were all predictable and budgetable.” 

In a later interview with Ashland.news, Bogdanove said the trajectory for the cuts were known in October and that union reps were told about the issues. 

Bogdanove sees declining enrollment as a larger factor that prompted the cuts. Declines in enrollment since the end of open enrollment were known about for a while, he said, but there was a buffer while the country was in the midst of the pandemic.

“They gave us an extra year at the same funding level,” he said. “We exhausted our ESSER dollars more quickly because we really felt the need for additional staffing in our buildings.

“Because we are in a declining enrollment phase, we added staffing to make sure we could resource teachers and classrooms really, really well.”

McLean, while addressing those at the school board, shared gratitude for financial updates given by the district, but shared frustration about the timing of it all.

“Members are very grateful for the site-based budget updates, and also frustrated that the district knew all of this in October and, yet, waited until February to talk to staff and ask for ideas,” she continued. “Teachers are concerned and frustrated at the projected loss of programs and the impacts to students and staff. The vast majority of Oregon school districts dealt with declining enrollment at the same time that they were given ESSER funds, yet they’re not in this dire, financial crisis that Ashland is in. When cut days, cut programs and staff layoffs are on the table, we are in a financial predicament.

“Even though employees didn’t make the financial decisions with the district in this dilemma, many of the suggested cost saving measures essentially require employees to pay for the district’s mistakes,” she added.

McLean is a kindergarten teacher at Helman Elementary School and was named Southern Oregon Teacher of the Year in 2019.

“My kindergarteners always say, ‘It starts with one penny and teamwork makes the dream work,’” she said. “We are in a financial crisis … We need everyone’s help and support to keep our district thriving, not just surviving. We should take accountability for errors, truly collaborate with staff to find solutions, and partner with our community to follow through with our commitment to our students.”

In between updates about various programs and events, McLean shared concerns from each school in the district about planned reductions in staff, which include the principal of TRAILS Outdoor School being reduced from full-time to just over half-time. In addition, that principal will also soon oversee Ashland Connect, which provides K-12 online learning with a hybrid option for sixth through eighth-graders to attend at TRAILS in-person. There will likely also be an additional two students per class at TRAILS, adding to the overall class size.

“This has caused a lot of conversation around safety and how this decision is best for students,” McLean said. 

Concerns are also growing among staff and parents of students at Willow Wind Community Learning Center about how they will be impacted by budget cuts.

“Teachers and EAs (Educational Assistants) are the most common target, but when thinking about the many academic, social and emotional needs of students, we’re still reeling from the effects of COVID,” McLean said. 

Oregon School Employees Association (OSEA) representative Steven Essig also shared a statement on the impact of budgetary cuts and about upcoming bargaining sessions.

“Many of our classified employees, especially with those most affected by the reduction … that’s going to be presented tonight, have suffered under this economy and struggle making ends meet as it is,” Essig said.

Essig said many school employees he’s spoken with have started receiving notices of increased rent in line with the maximum 14% allowed this year.

“The last bargaining, we got a 3% raise,” Essig said. “This discrepancy in rent and pay alone has led to many of my colleagues having to moonlight with second or even third jobs. 

“This whole situation has caused a massive amount of stress and anxiety,” he added. “That affects our classified staff the most.”

What are ESSER funds and how are they involved?

With the looming end of ESSER funds this year, Ashland School District appears to be following a national and statewide trend where many districts are scrambling to stay afloat as federal funds distributed during the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly disappear.

Oregon’s Parkrose School District was listed among many other national school districts in Education Week in December as anticipating more than a $1.5 million shortfall in 2024 when ESSER funds go away. 

Education Week Reporter Mark Lieberman writes in a December 2023 article that districts invested the money in a wide range of initiatives, “often hiring dozens of new employees to work with students, or contracting with outside vendors to run new programs or aid aging facilities.”

Portland’s Parkrose School District Sharie Lewis, director of business, services and operations, told Education Week she is considering tapping into $3 million in reserves, and reducing the district’s energy costs by retrofitting every light fixture with energy-efficient LED bulbs. 

Not all school districts have that option, and it is not an option for Ashland, according to Bogdanove.

Ashland School District Superintendent Samuel Bogdanove sat down with Ashland.news Thursday to talk about budget cuts. Ashland.news photo by Holly Dillemuth
Superintendent defends district administrative actions, emphasizes significant drop in enrollment left to decisions

The ASD superintendent went on to explain the enrollment decline that he believes contributed to such significant actions by the board.

“We are in fact a smaller district than we once might’ve been,” Bogdanove said. “There are several reasons that fit into that. One is declining enrollment in general, and the state of Oregon has actually experienced over COVID about an 11,000 student reduction in public school(s).”

Bogdanove said some of the 11,000 in reductions are directly from COVID but said “a good chunk of it was due to the loss of open enrollment.” 

The law previously allowed students to come into the district from any other district, as long as there was adequate space, without needing to seek permission from the resident district, he said.

“That ended in ’18-19, and slowly those students have been moving out,” Bogdanove said. “Under COVID, we had some dollars that protected us at the times that we needed it most.”

Those dollars allowed the district to hire enough staff in order to comply with COVID-19 spacing requirements.

Once out of the COVID pandemic, the district needed to be able to keep enough staff to help students regain their footing academically once they returned to in-person learning, according to Bogdanove.

“Part of what has allowed us to do that was federal ESSER dollars and additional dollars from the state that just kind of stabilized us for two years,” Bogdanove said. “We’re now at a point where those (ESSER) dollars are gone,” he added. “We did overspend a little bit, but not dramatically.”

“So now we’re at a place where what we have to do is recognize, we’re a district of 2,500 or 2,550 and we have to appropriately resource at every level,” he said. “That really does impact all employee groups.”

Bogdanove said the first place they chose to reduce staffing is in the district office with the reduction of one administrative employee, though he wasn’t specific about which position.

“By increasing workload, we’ve been able to reduce a single position,” he said. “There are two other administrative cuts that we’ve made, and each one of these hurts, right?”

One of those is the reduction of the fulltime principal position at TRAILS to .4, just less than half-time.

Bogdanove said the current TRAILS Outdoor School principal is at interim status for the school, which has 140 students, but a replacement would likely be hired at a .6.

“We know that we need to address that and make sure that that’s working for that site,” he said. “The other administrative position was a reduction from four administrators at the high school to three.” 

“We’ve taken the role of our athletic director, who is fabulous, and we have decided not to renew that position again,” he added. “The reality is, we are a smaller district and we have to adjust the size.

“We think of budget cuts because we feel each of these things, right, but the reality is … we’re really just shaping our district to be able to make sure we’re able to continue and maintain an excellent education for kids … to do that, we need to be fiscally responsible.”

Bogdanove said the decision to reduce staffing is “tough” and that they have been made “thoughtfully” and with “engagement.”

Ashland School District will be negotiating new contracts with both AEA and OSEA this spring.

“At the end of this fiscal year, we’re roughly bringing in about $38.7 million,” said district Director of Business Services Scott Whitman. “We’ll be spending about $40 million this year and so we’re overspending by about $1.3 million.”

That brings the ending fund balance to right under $1 million, which Whitman said is “very low for a district our size.”

School Board policy requires the board to reduce their spending to comply with budgetary standards.

“And so, what do we do from here?” he asked. “This is the quandary that we’re in.

“If we don’t do anything … we’re going to be overspending by about $2 million next year,” he added. “If we’re looking at this as a personal bank, we’d be overdrawn.”

Whitman said the district may consider reducing spending by a total of $2.2 million during this year’s budget process.

“It’s what we need to actually stabilize our spending,” Whitman said.

“The vast majority of our spending is on staff,” Whitman said, noting 85% of funds are being spent on staff. “There’s not a whole lot else to cut besides that.”

Bogdanove later told Ashland.news later he’d like to see spending reduced from 85% on staffing to 80%, as well as to build up reserves.

“Without making significant cuts, we’re not going to be able to operate the district, I don’t think,” Whitman said.

Bogdanove shared that classified staff are “part of the heart and soul of our school (district)” during the meeting, prior to school board members voting to approve a resolution instituting the week of March 4-8 as “Classified Staff Recognition Week.”

Chair Rebecca Dyson and board member Dan Ruby attended virtually due to being out of town.

Related story: Ashland teachers air grievances with district during school board public comment period

Reach Ashland.news staff reporter Holly Dillemuth at hollyd@ashland.news.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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