Sequim schools looking at options with budget struggles

District freezes most hiring, aims to cut at least $2.5 million

SEQUIM — Facing a $2.5 million budget shortfall, Sequim School District leaders are looking at putting the brakes on any new hires for positions other than those necessary to keep schools open.

Some critical positions will still be filled if they come open, superintendent Regan Nickels said, but the school district essentially is in a budget and hiring freeze.

“In our organization, there are positions you must have; we will replace critical positions,” she said at the district’s board of directors meeting in early March.

Some spending will continue as planned, she told board, such as professional development opportunities — many of whom are paid for through federal grants — and training for staff to be qualified in a certain area, as well as activities such as field trips that were earmarked for spending months ago.

“This year we are feeling severe tightening of the belt; our spending is outpacing our revenues,” Nickels said. “It [spending] is going to be a case-by-case basis.”

Other spending, however, is suspended, and district leaders are aiming for at least $2.5 million in budget cuts.

In a budget overview on May 6, Nickels said the district’s expenses are outpacing the revenue by about $8.6 million.

In addition, the district’s general fund is at about $1.53 million out of a $48.3 million budget — about 3 percent of the overall budget, off of the district’s general fund balance goal of 4 percent to 6 percent.

The district’s budget projects for the 2024-25 school year in early May have Sequim schools’ general fund in the negative by the end of the academic year.

Nickels and Darlene Apeland, the district’s director of business operations, detailed the district’s budget realities and constraints in an early February finance study session.

Calling the dive into the district’s finances a “budget autopsy,” Nickels said the look at the annual budget was not a plan or remedy but rather an overview to give board directors its constraints.

Those factors, Apeland said, include impacts from additional costs to staff insurance, the loss of federal ESSER funds that helped districts survive the COVID-19 pandemic but were always temporary in nature, and changes in the way the state funds education, along with some expenses when the district made settlements with former employees.

The school district also was off on enrollment budgeting by more than 70 full-time equivalents (FTEs) as of late April. Enrollment was up this school year, Nickels noted, but not nearly enough to meet the budget projection.

“There are no quick fixes,” Nickels said. “We’re going to look at every angle.”

In late May, the district received its most recent list of retirees and staff resigning positions, which included four resignations from Greywolf Elementary teachers and one each from Sequim High School, Sequim Middle School and Helen Haller Elementary, plus retirement notices from seven teachers, along with resignations or retirements from seven support staffers.

Some of those positions will need to be filled, Nickels said, but department directors are coming to administrators with ideas to help with the budget crunch.

“There is nothing we aren’t discussing,” Nickels said in April.

Greywolf upgrade

Pipes carrying water throughout Greywolf Elementary School are in such poor condition that Mike Santos, the school district’s director of facilities, operations and security, asked board directors in April to make an adjustment to their capital project levy funding to address it.

Directors voted unanimously April 22 to reallocate unspecified levy funds to replace the school’s failing potable water delivery system.

Santos said Greywolf’s pipes have had pinhole leaks multiple times since the start of the school year. Some of the breaks have happened in the middle of the night, he said, with staff showing up to find a 150-gallon puddle on the hallway in the morning.

Santos said he and staff estimate it will cost the district $40,000 to $50,000 per year to fix the constant leaks.

“I don’t think that’s a great place to put your money,” he said.

To compound the issue, Santos said, Greywolf has one water shutoff valve, so when a sink has a leak, staff has to shut down the whole school’s water system.

“This [issue] could accelerate very, very quickly,” Santos said. “We might have to re-pipe a whole wing ... in the middle of a school year.”

Chris Marfori, a project manager with the Wenaha Group overseeing Sequim’s capital project levy efforts, noted the project was not originally on levy.

“We realize this is something that cannot be ignored or the cost will exceed the total replacement very fast, just from the damages and remediations,” Marfori said.

Alarm, lighting

School board directors agreed on May 6 to add a pair of emerging repairs to the capital project levy list, passing resolutions to replace the Sequim Middle School fire alarm and update the district stadium’s lighting.

Marfori said his team will pursue pricing for the SMS fire alarm — a system that is deteriorating rapidly and uses components no longer produced, he said — and could have the project done by the summer.

The lights at the stadium are obsolete, inefficient and not up to current energy codes, Marfori said.

“We expect a lot further use to come from [the lighting] when it’s resurfaced,” he said.

The new lighting could cost about $87,000 based on an initial bid, he said.

Long-range planning

The school district has formed a long-range planning group to look at overall facility needs, Nickels told directors in late April.

“There is not a plan; that is why we have this ... group,” she said.

The group may form a multi-year or even multi-decade plan to address what conditions Sequim’s school buildings are in and what will need to be done.

Donations

School board directors on April 22 accepted a number of donations from community groups, including: Koenig Subaru, $5,000, to fund 10 teachers’ classrooms with materials, some items to be used to support English language arts; Sequim Elementary PTA, $13,000, a donation toward the 6 Books For Summer program; Sequim Elementary PTA, $3,500, for the Year End Books K-2; Sequim Sunrise Rotary Foundation, $1,200, for the Walk For Water Fundraiser; AJ PIE LLC, dba Dominoes, $1,250, a donation for the SHS Senior Ball; Sequim Association of Realtors, $2,525, a “level the field” grant for January-March 2024; Sequim Choir Boosters Club, $1,330, a donation for Music in the Park or future travel, and 7 Cedars, $5,000, for boys and girls basketball uniforms for Sequim Middle School.

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