School districts grappling with budget deficits face deadline for teacher layoffs

Teachers and support staff in some of western Washington's largest school districts are watching closely following the Edmonds School Board's vote late Tuesday to lay off 25 teachers and 10 other staff members.

The 3-2 vote, which happened just before midnight after hours of impassioned testimony, is in response to a $17.7 million budget shortfall for the upcoming school year. And Edmonds is not alone.

In Pierce County, the Puyallup School District has a $19.6 million budget shortfall. Tacoma Public Schools, which already laid off 37 employees in 2018, is $38 million in the red.

If there is even a slight chance that school districts in Washington will lay off teachers for the upcoming school year, districts are required by law to notify their teachers by Wednesday (May 15). But just because a teacher is notified of a potential layoff doesn't mean it will actually happen.

As state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal explains, it's an "appropriate legal notice," after which districts will continue working on ways to amend the budget and avoid layoffs. 

"This is a pretty normal budget process," Reykdal said. "We do see this happen in May every year.  It’s a little bit more acute right now because of all the legislative changes over the last two years."

The legislative changes Reykdal is referencing are in response to the McCleary Supreme Court decision that fully funds public education statewide and pumps $9.2 billion more into public schools. Although state funding increased significantly, money from local levies decreased, leaving some districts -- like Edmonds, Puyallup and Tacoma -- facing big budget shortfalls.

"Districts will make these hard choices," Reykdal said. "Many of these you’re hearing about ... the districts will figure out ways through retirement and attrition to avoid any layoffs, but some of them may be necessary."

Washington educators disagree.

Rich Wood, media relations coordinator for the Washington Education Association, says although the districts considering layoffs are outliers and don't represent a pattern statewide, they're making "bad budget decisions that are going to hurt students."

"Because of McCleary decision, Washington public schools have more money than they’ve ever had before," Wood said. "It’s a historic time for Washington public schools. We need to look at what’s best for students in the classroom ... We think it’s unnecessary and not in the best interest of students."