Puyallup Herald

55 kids in a calculus class? Puyallup schools bracing for impact of budgeting decisions

One Puyallup High School math teacher is preparing for a class size of 42 students this September.

“I’m looking at those initial class-sizes, and I’m having a heart attack,” Leigh Ann Mahaffie told The Puyallup Herald.

Mahaffie has to strategize how to arrange desks so she can walk around. With more than 40 grown teenagers and backpacks and books, it gets crowded real quick, she said.

An Emerald Ridge calculus class has 55 enrolled students, because that’s not enough students by district standards to split into two periods, said Karen McNamara, the teacher union’s president.

Puyallup High cut an AP class after only 28 students signed up because that was not considered “enough,” Mahaffie said.

“Now if you are not in the thirties, it’s not going to happen,” she said.

Teachers across the district are bracing for large class sizes this fall because the Puyallup School District reduced 49 teaching positions, according to district data. The preliminary budget for 2019-20 shows the district operating on a $13.4 million deficit this year.

“The district will continue to struggle without the support from local taxpayers,” the district’s director of business services, Laura Marcoe, told the Puyallup School District board on Monday.

But the district doesn’t have plans to ask taxpayers for help, at least not right away.

Over the summer, the Puyallup School Board considered a proposal to increase the district’s levy authority to help fund operations, a second levy for technology upgrades but ultimately approved only a bond proposal that would reconstruct the four high schools.

If approved by voters, the $273 million construction bond would make Puyallup, Rogers and Walker high schools more secure by consolidating classrooms from portables and secondary buildings into a single, main building with one point of entrance. Emerald Ridge’s relatively new school would be expanded.

Both levy proposals were tabled.

“When I see the inequity of school district funding, it really is frustrating,” said board member Kathy Yang in Monday’s board meeting, who voted against putting either levy on the ballot.

Increasing enrollment

The school district’s projected enrollment has increased by 6.2 percent in the past five years to 22,235 enrolled students. Funding over that time has increased by less than 1 percent, the district said.

Washington law mandates that kindergarten through third grade must have a student-to-teacher ratio of 17:1. The law does not cap class sizes above third grade.

Puyallup school officials could not confirm the average number of students per class for grades 4-12 for the coming school year.

McNamara, president of the Puyallup Education Association, said she’s worried about student outcomes.

“They aren’t going to get what they need to be successful,” she said. “A school district budget should reflect the board’s priorities, and I don’t believe theirs are with the children.”

Puyallups asks less of its taxpayers when it comes to funding operations than do neighboring school districts. Voters in Tacoma, Sumner, Fife and University Place school districts have implemented higher, state-approved property-tax levies to help fund operations.

The state Legislature passed a bill in April that allows local districts to levy at a higher rate. Puyallup currently taxes at a rate of $1.85 per $1,000 of assessed property value. It could ask its voters to raise that rate to $2.50 per $1,000, which would raise an additional $9 million per year, Marcoe said.

Out of Washington’s 295 school districts, 271 school districts collect more local levy taxes per pupil than Puyallup School District, according to the League of Education Voters.

Board’s response

During a vote in July, Board members Michael Keaton, Kathy Yang, and Maddie Names voted to wait on the levies, while board president Chris Ihrig and vice president Dane Looker wanted to put the operations levy on the ballot with the construction bond.

Keaton told The News Tribune in an email that every conversation he’d had with people who live or run a business in the district convinced him that the bond would not get the 60 percent required to pass the bond if voters were asked to vote on the bond and two levies at the same time.

Yang agreed with Keaton and said timing was the biggest reason for her vote to table the levies.

Ihrig believes the delay left money on the table.

“We are not maximizing funding in our district as a result, and it will make issues even more challenging in the coming years,” he told The News Tribune in an email.

Looker said he had faith the bond and both levies could pass on the same ballot to address “some crucial funding shortfalls.”

Names joined Yang in holding off on the levies. Names said she is glad teachers are getting paid now what they need, but that there would be a cost.

Puyallup teachers went on a three-day strike at the beginning of the school year last year to demand higher pay. The district warned teachers there would be fiscal repercussions for increased labor costs.

The district’s Chief Financial Officer, Corine Pennington, said the biggest reason the budget is so thin has more to do with the lack of local funding.

Mahaffie understands budget cuts are a tough decision and that with every decision there are consequences.

“They are being careful stewards of the taxpayers money,” the 29-year veteran math teacher said. “The district is good at long-term planning. I don’t agree, but I don’t fault them.”

The board still has to approve the budget at the next board meeting on August 19, but Pennington said other than the enrollment numbers, the finances are locked in. She is hopeful the board will pass the levy next year, and voters will approve it. If not, she warns there will be consequences.

“If that additional levy doesn’t get approved, we’ll have to make additional reductions next year,” Pennington said.

Josephine Peterson covers Pierce County and Puyallup for The News Tribune and The Puyallup Herald. She previously worked at The News Journal in Delaware as the crime reporter and interned at The Washington Post.