The Goldendale Sentinel - Headlines & History since 1879

By Lou Marzeles

An education perfect storm for Goldendale


The Washington State Legislature threw a ton of money out to education last year in the wake of the infamous McCleary decision, but much of it was portioned off to teacher salaries before the rest of it hit the schools. That, plus the fact that the Legislature this session did next to nothing to fix the remaining education issues, has resulted in ongoing and severe economic pressure on a great many schools in the state—including Goldendale. The result is sharp reductions in Goldendale school personnel and programs.

Few take issue with teachers getting better pay—although the teachers’ union has taken heat for how it secured the raises—but those salary increases diminished funds available for the rest of basic education. The primary legislative “fix” from the last session was to lift the levy tax rate lid of $1.50 it imposed the year before, and school districts will certainly act on that. But for the Goldendale School District (GSD), the impact of increased levy funding, if a new levy were to be voter approved, would not be seen until 2021.

“February 2020 would be our next [levy] election,” says Dean Schlenker, GSD business manager, meaning that month would be the first time the district would run a new levy. “And collection of those funds would not be until 2021. We have about a year and a half through which we have to work” in the face of severe financial constraints.

Lost levy funding has cost the district almost $1.2 million. And the School Employees Benefits Board (SEBB) requires an additional $210,000 for half of the school year and $300,000 for future years (the district has to pay insurance for employees who work three and a half hours or more a day). Add to this these factors:

• The GSD is not eligible for state equalization funds;

• Its assessed valuation has decreased sharply because of wind turbine depreciation—assessed values have been going down about $6 million per year;

• A decline in student enrollment;

• Inadequate special education funding, which in 2017-28 expended $192,000 over federal and state funding allocations.

All of that adds up what Schlenker and Interim GSD Superintendent Ian Grabenhorst call a perfect storm of trouble created by a confluence of disastrous factors for Goldendale. If something doesn’t change, things can only get worse.

“The McCleary Education Funding Plan [passed by the State] took control of Goldendale’s $1.2 million in levy dollars,” Grabenhorst says, “and told the district how it needs to be spent.”

Much of that money went to provide counselors, specialists, athletics, lower-class sizes, para-pro assistance, facility upgrades, student programs, and the like—all of which were programs voted for by the Goldendale school community. And those programs now have been hard hit.

“It means we are losing three teaching positions,” Grabenhorst states. High school math, social studies, and art have been reduced, with the math position being met through reassignment and scheduling, social studies met through scheduling, and art going from three offerings to one. One counseling position is lost, with services more or less available through building transfers. Primary school music remains intact, which middle and high school music now combined at the middle school. One custodian is lost. One full-time high school secretary is lost. Eleven para-educations are gone. Extracurricular costs are being trimmed, with uniforms being rotated, an increase in ASB card costs, and non-league rescheduling to reduce travel expenses.

The district office reduce costs by about $111,000, a large portion of that just from hiring its new superintendent. Her contract salary is for much less than previous superintendent Mark Heid’s.

The GSD will receive $2,058 per student less than the average of all other schools in the state. If no budget fixes arise, the school will be broke at the end of the 2020-21 school year.

A bizarre and arcane state formula that projects personnel needs at schools has exacerbated much of the GSD’s problems. It’s part of what is behind the district’s lag of $1.9 million in funding compared to school averages around the state.

“It’s amazing—no, it’s beyond amazing,” Schlenker says. “And then you look at the schools that disregarded the state’s instructions and ran levies higher than the levy cap the state imposed.”

Wait, what—some schools cheated and ran their own higher levies? Yep, say Grabenhorst and Schlenker. And from all appearances, they got away with it, at least so far. Goldendale chose to take the high road.

GSD School Board Chair Beth Schroder applauds the actions of the district office. “They have worked tirelessly trying to figure out the best way to work with what we were going to be given,” she states. “Their input has been invaluable in going through this process, and they literally have spent hours and hours trying to make the right decision. It’s hard to know what to do, especially when you don’t know what the legislature is going to do, trying to do the best you can and keep our schools working the best we can for the kids—because that’s what we’re here for. They’ve done a phenomenal job, working with the teachers and staff to make the situation the best that we can.”

Schroder speaks both as a board member and a parent. “I would hope that, regardless of whether you have kids in the district or not, you want the best possible education for those kids that we can provide. They’re going to be the next people who help support the rest of us. But as a parent, yes, I want to make sure my kids have a good opportunity in their future. I feel Goldendale has provided some really great opportunities for them to learn, not just in academic areas but in programs outside of that, extracurricular things like FFA and the drama program, all of those things. My daughter plays volleyball. You learn something from being able to participate in all of those things.”

That blend of cold economics and the human face of education and all it impacts are part of the mix of the coming storm. Whether it turns into the proverbial perfect storm of dire consequences or stays only a passing squall remains to be seen.


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