Sunday, July 14, 2024
Cascade School District

CSD grapples with budget woes amid enrollment declines and inflation challenges

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LEAVENWORTH - Cascade School District is facing a budget constraint, as are most school districts throughout Washington State. Even with district staff scrutinizing budgets last summer and anticipating higher prices for goods and services due to inflation, this has been a school year for some tough financial decisions. Cascade School District Superintendent Tracey Edou, explained it as a perfect storm of factors. 

One factor is enrollment. CSD’s enrollment has held at nearly 1200 full-time equivalent (FTE) for this and last year, though the pre-COVID high was 1284 FTE. Enrollment decline in the Upper Valley can be attributed to a combination of homeschooling, some families opting to choice into other schools (though there is also some influx in the opposite direction), and departure of some families from the area, possibly in relation to high home prices.

Another factor is inflation, which continued through the fall of 2023; while lower now, its impact on prices is still being felt. “As a concrete example of unanticipated inflation, our school district insurance increased by $106,192 this year,” said Edou. “Unfortunately, we received the final cost of the insurance after our budget was adopted.” Edou and the board expected and included an increase based on insurance company estimates, but the final bill came in at $85,784 higher than the insurance company had previously indicated. This is an unfortunate but not insurmountable hurdle, budget-wise. Utilities and some contract services represent other categories of higher prices.

The final piece of the financial puzzle is the cost of student support. “Federal COVID money has ended, although student post-COVID needs remain high,” said Edou. Those needs span the academic, social-emotional, and behavioral realms.

Edou explained, “We noticed [the budget shortfall] early in the school year, and we took actions early on to address it.” Specifically, the school board and superintendent are actively working on strategies to move the district forward in a direction that aligns with the district’s mission of continuous student development. 

Reduced spending is one strategy, and the school board has held study sessions to analyze and decide where some reductions can occur with the least impact on programming and education. Within staffing, there have been two layoffs, and a few positions have been absorbed through attrition. The board has dipped into CSD’s reserve to help weather this phase, with plans to reinvest in the reserve next school year.

CSD is also continuing to pursue grant funding opportunities to increase revenue. Special education services are generally underfunded. The District is applying for Safety Net funding, which reimburses school districts for the multilayers of support for special education students when it goes beyond the threshold of $40,000 per student per year. Due in March, the grant application to the state is complex in its evidentiary and projected data requirements. Still, assuming reimbursement occurs this year, the District will apply annually more easily after having gone through the process.

Career and Technical Education (CTE) qualifies for extra funding for grades seven to twelve. CTE is the large umbrella defining courses that have explicit career connections, often work with community partners, and include courses such as child development, digitools, art, culinary, natural resources, fire science, and health sciences. CSD is looking to expand its qualified classes. Travis Blue, the Discovery School teacher, recently became CTE certified in STEM Technology for the metals/woods class he teaches at Discovery School, located at the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery. Edou is hopeful that the legislature will approve an extension of CTE supplemental funding to more middle school classes and extend funding down to sixth-grade classes.

District office staff and building leadership are also reviewing systems to look for ways to avoid redundancy and increase efficiency, which will lead to savings. For example, the recording of teacher absences was recently automated by integrating it with the district’s overarching student information system.

Some Washington school districts are facing more dire financial positions because their communities didn’t pass levies. Cascade School District citizens supported two levies, the Educational Programs and Operations (EP&O) levy and the Technology and Safety levy, which will be up for vote again in 2025. These local levies cover essential programs and services such as facility maintenance, athletics, arts, special education services, technology upgrades, and safety and security equipment. Combined, the two levies provide over 20% of the district’s annual budget. Their continued passage demonstrates how this community values the schools and their benefits to students, families, and life as a whole in the Upper Valley.

“Cascade School District wants to thank the community for the support of our levies,” said Edou. “Although our district is having to tighten the belt, we have great teachers, great opportunities for students, and great communities. We will be able to weather this challenge together.”

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