Tacoma teachers on chopping block as district prepares for ‘worst case’ budget scenario

More job cuts are on the horizon at Tacoma Public Schools, and teachers won’t be exempt.

That was the message from district officials Thursday night as the board of directors passed a resolution to create a reduction in workforce plan. The plan would recommend cuts across all departments for the 2019-20 school year.

It is not yet clear how many positions would be affected. State law requires certificated staff, which includes teachers, to be notified by May 15 if they will no longer have a job with the district.

“We’re simply getting prepared for worst-case scenarios, and hopefully that doesn’t happen,” board president Karen Vialle said at Thursday’s meeting.

The district is facing a $30 million budget deficit for the 2019-20 school year, which officials say is due to changes implemented by the state Legislature that cap how much levy funding the district can collect.

The district also approved salary increases for its teachers in September after a week-long strike. At the time, officials pointed to an impending budget deficit that would mean major cuts.

Tacoma’s decision to begin a reduction-in-force plan comes the same day Spokane Public Schools announced it would be issuing 325 layoff notices as it faces a $31 million budget deficit next year, the KXLY Broadcast Group reported. Spokane serves roughly 30,000 students, while Tacoma serves 29,000 as of May 2018, according to state figures.

Tacoma Public Schools has already eliminated 43 administrative and central support positions this school year.

The district also has identified about 80 positions so far that will not be refilled after retirements, resignations and non-renewals of contracts.

Tacoma Superintendent Carla Santorno said the district will prioritize position eliminations with “the least impact to students and classrooms.” It also will dedicate $7 million from reserves to save jobs, Santorno said.

Tacoma Education Association Vice President Jillian Gutierrez spoke out during public comment at Thursday’s meeting, saying the resolution was “premature” and asked the board to wait.

“If we have a reduction in force this early, we will lose some of those fantastic educators that we’ve brought to Tacoma,” Gutierrez said.

She referenced several bills currently being considered by the Legislature, including Senate Bill 5313.

The bill, if passed, would allow Tacoma Public Schools to collect a total of $57 million in levy dollars — $14 million more than if the Legislature does nothing, The News Tribune’s James Drew reported.

“Our legislators have promised us — they wrote a letter to us this fall saying they are determined to find a levy fix,” Gutierrez said.

Hope is dwindling that something will get accomplished this session.

“Unfortunately, final action on a statewide levy fix has not yet been adopted,” Santorno said at the meeting, reading from a letter to staff and the community. “At this point in time, we cannot count on passage of proposed legislation that would allow us to collect any additional local levy funding as we plan and budget for next school year.”

Still, Santorno, who has testified in support of the levy fix in Olympia, said legislation could be passed between now and the Legislature’s final session day on April 28.

“This is a day that I didn’t think we would reach,” Vialle said Thursday.