Hoquiam schools to cut $2 million in spending

District will reduce staff before next school year as federal pandemic relief expires

The Hoquiam School District is working on a plan to reduce spending by $2 million by cutting some staff before the start of the 2024-2025 school year in the fall, an action officials say is needed to slow the depletion of the general fund as federal pandemic dollars expire.

The district’s Board of Directors at a March 21 meeting gave authority to Superintendent Mike Villarreal to draft the reduction in force plan, which will be presented at a future board meeting for approval. A resolution approved by the board Thursday states the reductions could include administrative, certificated and classified staff.

“It hurts,” Villarreal said Thursday. “I know those conversations affect families.”

Villarreal said the district saw the writing on the wall last school year as it looked ahead to 2024, which carries an August deadline for school districts to spend pandemic relief funding from the American Rescue Plan. Hoquiam will spend its final $3.3 million this year out of $7.7 million it received since 2021, according to Keith Ounsted, the district’s business manager.

Aside from about $600,000 for an HVAC unit, most of it was spent on personnel. That expiration combines with Hoquiam’s pattern of dwindling enrollment that has left the district with less funding for both building needs and maintaining staff.

Villarreal said many districts are also reducing force as pandemic funding expires and guessed that Hoquiam’s financial situation is “probably a little bit better” than others

“It doesn’t change the fact that this money is coming off and our insurance rate and other things increased,” he said Thursday. “It does put us in a situation where we have to really try to look at the sustainability of the district moving forward.”

Ounsted projects that without a plan to reduce spending the district’s general fund would drop to $3.8 million in reserves at the end of next school year. A $2 million reduction in spending would save the same amount from being drawn from general fund reserves, but still means the district will have to dip into the reserves by $1 million.

Villarreal said administration considered recommending a $3 million spending reduction to avoid dipping into reserves but decided that would be “too big of a hit.”

He said he hoped belt tightening now could negate the need for an additional reduction down the road.

Katie Beyer, president of the Hoquiam teacher’s union, said teachers were “very upset” after learning about the staffing cuts earlier this month. She said she has since met with the superintendent to discuss concerns, and hopes teachers will be involved throughout the process.

“The important thing I want to stress to the board is the importance of our teachers and paras (paraeducators),” Beyer said during Thursday’s school board meeting. “We really want to you hear that we are the critical players. As we move forward, we want to make sure the teachers and paras have a seat and a part of the discussion. We know so much about the day-to-day operations of our buildings and we need to be heard as you make those critical decisions.”

Beyer advocated for “equity” and said the cuts “can’t all fall on the people that are on the bottom of the seniority pool and the people that make the least amount of money in the district.”

“We’re the backbone of the district,” Jan Magri, union leader of the district’s classified staff, said Thursday. “Hard workers, probably the least pay. We stay in the classrooms, we stay on the playgrounds. We transport kids in school buses, to and from school and extracurricular activities. We keep technology up, we take care of the buildings, we take care of the grounds.”

“We need to work on keeping these people,” Magri added.

Before approving the reduction on Thursday, board member Chris Eide said, “I can see we’re going to have to proceed strategically, very well thought out everything that we do, and consider all the ramifications and all the input.”

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or clayton.franke@thedailyworld.com.