by Stuart Jenner
Each year the Highline School District goes through a budgeting process. The fiscal year starts on July 1. The following year is set, with forecasts for future years included as well.
Will there be any difference in this year’s budget process compared to the operation of prior years? I emailed the school board on Feb 16 asking this question. As of Tuesday, Feb 21, I’m still waiting to receive an answer.
I recall a board member saying last June, ‘we’re heading for dwindling reserves.’ I looked at the budget development slide deck presented to the board in a work-study session on February 1, 2023, and see that there are two scenarios for the next several years: one where the state kicks in a lot more money and then the reserves don’t dwindle, or one where present trends continue, and the reserve funds drop a lot.
The budget process, as seen by the public, is pretty much the same every year:
1. There’s a presentation at a work-study session with a modest discussion by board members in February.
a. At the Feb 1 meeting, the recording shows the presentation and discussion lasted 36 minutes. Three of the five board members were present: Aaron Garcia, Joe Van, and Azeb Hagos.
b. Since the presentation is at a work-study session, there has never been public comment at the session.
c. Due to the board’s new public comment policy, there is also no guarantee that someone signing up to speak about the budget can do so at a regular board meeting. Many factors apparently shape who can speak in citizen comment time at school board meetings.
2. Over the next few months, there’s likely to be some email or discussion from board members to staff.
a. I base this assertion on verbal communications and references over the years in various public meetings
3. There are various work-study sessions in March, April, and May.
a. In the mid-April meeting, (for example, April 13, 2022,) there’s a presentation and update with enrollment information; updates on the final amount of funding from Olympia will be clearer.
b. In any given year, there could also be other sessions where the budget is discussed. I found out the hard way when Susan Enfield was trying to shove through trimesters that work-session agendas could change on the fly; for example, once citizens were gone from a discussion of trimesters, she changed the agenda to cover that topic. Dr. Duran does appear to have great respect for parents, I bring this up to show how fluid agendas can be.
c. The slide decks don’t include the cost of any programs.
i. For example, what is the total cost of implementing dual language? What is the source?
ii. What revenue is lost because of the hundreds of students attending Running Start?
iii. How many students are “missing” in Highline? As reported in the Seattle Times on Feb 9, thousands of students have not returned statewide.
iv. How can it cost over $30,000 per year to educate a student in the Open Doors re-engagement program? (This is a 2020-21 figure, the most recent data available on the state site.)
4. At some point, a budget book is posted on the website, but there’s never been an email announcing this, to my knowledge.
a. So, I’m still determining when the budget book will be posted. Early June? Here’s the link to the current 2022-23 budget book.
5. There’s a budget hearing for maybe 45 minutes in late June.
a. In 2022, the hearing was on June 22.
b. In 2023, it appears the date is June 21
c. In the hearing, each board member typically asks two questions. There’s public comment, which will be different this year because, in the past, the comment has been 4 minutes, but now it will be only two minutes.
6. Then, the same evening, the board has a first hearing
7. Two or three weeks later, the board meets and approves the budget.
a. For the current year, the meeting was on July 5, 2022
b. For 2023, the most likely date is July 6.
The hearings and citizen comments are rote.
I can’t recall that there have been any changes in the past 10 years as a result of board questions or citizen comments and input during the hearing. But since materials are not posted more than a few days ahead, sending in comments or speaking during citizen comment at a regular board meeting has never been feasible (and now, with the way speakers are selected, it is less likely than ever a citizen could comment at an early June meeting).
The only significant change I can remember is that, at times, the budget hearing has yet to be announced, but it has been announced ahead of time in the past few years.
I clearly remember from last June, a board member saying that the district needs to engage the public more and how the district is facing some hard times ahead. The board member used language along the lines of “We’re going to have to make some cuts. We need to find out what the public really values.”
That would be a fascinating question to ask. For example, how much does the software kids use actually cost? Is it effective? If kids are not assigned homework, then do we need computers or Google devices they bring home? There are plenty of questions we could be asking, but we have no real opportunity for input.
In my comments of last June, I suggested cutting two percent from the budget and putting the money in reserves.
I also asked about what is sustainable after Covid funding runs out? I have a very weak “sense” of where Covid money goes, and it indeed was not broken out in detail. Chris Larsen, to her credit, sent me a follow-up email with some high-level info and a shoutout to Dr. Enfield for going above and beyond to make that happen.
And it appears the district is trying to make programs sustainable. In the Feb 1 recording, district employees talk about moving some of the ongoing programs into the Covid relief ESSER bucket next year so the district can build up reserves.
I hope the 2023-24 budget process will be different. But given the scenario of the state kicking in more money, with the results that reserves still look pretty good, there’s going to be little urgency to change the process.
I hope some citizens will attend any budget sessions, then submit questions and comments to the school board!