Superintendent Susan Halliday, left, looks through paperwork while Board Chair Rick Wells, center, goes through answers to questions that had been asked leading up to the meeting. At right is board member Joe Dealy. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The Philomath School Board approved its 2023-24 budget Friday night and cut the equivalent of nearly 13 positions in the district between classified staff, teachers and an administrator.

Philomath and several school districts across the state have been forced to make difficult decisions to balance budgets amid factors such as declining enrollment and exhausted COVID-19 relief funds. 

“We’d love to be able to afford everything and just affording everything is not in the wheelhouse right now,” Philomath Superintendent of Schools Susan Halliday said during the special meeting. “While there is room for some fluctuation, we may be doing things with less people. It’s a tough spot, it really is.”

The School Board delayed a vote last week to take another look at the numbers and consider a level of flexibility related to ongoing bargaining sessions with the teachers’ union.

“I can pretty much guarantee that all five of us took a pretty in-depth look at it,” School Board Chair Rick Wells said. 

The largest group of staff impacted through the reduction-in-force move are classified with nine positions removed from the budget (nearly six permanent and about three temporary). Of those, all but the equivalent of nearly four jobs were addressed through unfilled vacancies.

“All of the administrative (1.0 full-time equivalent) and licensed positions (2.75) are being addressed through retirements and resignations,” Halliday said, who later added, “I think we’ve done a pretty fair job of being able to look at where we can do things through attrition and not have to eliminate bunches of people and stranglehold the district.”

Halliday said that she would pay teachers what they’ve requested if she could.

“The notion of reduction in force — I hate it and have gone back and forth and around and around about not wanting to do it,” she said.

The $47.2 million budget and the related resolution to impose the tax passed on unanimous votes.

“We’re just in a crappy situation and there’s discussion to be had about how to maneuver the district to avoid being in crappy situations in the future but at the end of the day, we are here tonight to vote on this budget for this time,” Board member Christopher McMorran said.

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Wells spent about 20 minutes reading prepared answers to budget-related questions that had come to the board. Several questions referred to specific percentages related to increases or decreases in various areas of the budget. Wells with support from Finance Director Jennifer Griffith explained how those numbers were determined, which basically comes down to actual numbers and staffing situations — such as not filling those vacancies — that can skew appearances on spreadsheets when it comes to percentages.

McMorran tried to put the issue in context as he referred to the first meeting this spring of the district’s Budget Committee.

“We looked at all of our auxiliary programs and services and what we ended up realizing and seeing pretty darn quickly that even if the district cut every athletic program and the pool and the preschool and all of those non-core classes and programs, there would still be a rift,” he said. “There was never really a scenario in which there would not still be a significant budget deficit without some amount of reduction in force.”

School districts must approve budgets before the end of the month, something Philomath needed to do without knowing the final outcome of negotiations with the teachers’ union.

“I really do believe that this budget does not give us everything we want but it gives us the flexibility to meet the outcome of the negotiations and I do hope that we are able to reach an agreement where everyone feels very valued in this district,” McMorran said.

The school district and Philomath Education Association had its most recent bargaining session Wednesday with cost-of-living step adjustments, structural changes to the step salary system and issues related to insurance and short-term disability among the discussion points.

Another bargaining session is scheduled for June 28 but it’s possible that the talks could go late into the summer.

“Hopefully we can come to a resolution with the bargaining … we think we can do that without having to redo the budget,” Wells said.

As far as those impacts to other programs, Strengthening Rural Families has stepped in to provide preschool at least through the fall, Halliday said, and there are various other moving parts financially in terms of grants and other possible state funding sources.

If the school district brings in more students than anticipated, the State School Fund figure won’t change until a recalculation is performed in the fall or early winter.

“If it changes at that point and there’s more (funding), there may be more wiggle room to be able to do more,” Halliday said.

Clemens Community Pool continues to be a costly venture for the school district.

“The pool we can’t close … we can’t just drain it and leave it,” Halliday said. “But what we’re doing in looking at that is cutting down on the hours of operation where there’s one or two people who are there because there is revenue when there’s some larger groups there that come in to help it out.”

Other moves have included taking some classes with traditionally low enrollment and merging them with others, Halliday said. Summer learning funding that stalled in the State Legislature led school districts to plan on doing without, so those programs were eliminated, including things like kindergarten orientation, which will instead be incorporated into the first few weeks of regular classes.

“By the time that decision was reached it was too late to be able to move forward with significant plans,” Halliday said about summer learning as a whole. “Maxtivity is doing some things over the course of the summer as well as PYAC and they’ve been excellent about providing us with information and looking to get kids involved.”

Credit recovery for high school students is being made available through Philomath Academy.

The meeting included 13 people in the audience and lasted less than an hour. There were no public comments. Board members had met in a closed session for an hour prior to the public meeting.

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.