With a drop in student enrollment, ESD staff work to find jobs for displaced teachers

The Edmonds School Board Tuesday night heard from Spruce Elementary School second-grade students about their work to help orphaned baby bears at PAWS in Lynnwood.

Due to a drop in student enrollment, the Edmonds School District is working to find jobs for dozens of displaced teachers or risk issuing them pink slips by mid-May.

Since March 2020, the district has seen an enrollment decrease of 173 FTE students. At the Edmonds School Board of Directors’ April 27 business meeting, staff explained that the decline in student enrollment has left the district with 47.02 FTE (full-time equivalent) employees at risk of being displaced. However, with 50.3 FTE vacancies to fill, Human Resources Director Debby Carter said staff are optimistic they will not have to resort to layoffs.

A staffing surplus occurs after a school’s needs are assessed and it is determined that there are not enough students to justify having as many teachers. For example, if a school that previously had 32 staff members sees a drop in enrollment and only needs 30 staff, then the extra two are placed at another school in the district. Other factors like staff retirements, leaves of absence and resignations also factor into where teachers are placed, Carter said.

“It’s the puzzle piece of matching those surplus (teachers) with the need,” she said.

Carter also clarified that no staff members have received layoff notices at this time and the briefing for the reduced educational program was in the event that they would have to notify affected staff before the state-mandated May 15 deadline.

“I want to stress that no reductions of force have been identified at this time,” she said. “This is the first step in balancing staffing and then it will change on a daily basis.”

In the event there are layoffs, Carter said staff will return to present an actual number of affected staff at the board’s May 11 business meeting.

Staffing for the 2021-22 school year is currently underway. During a typical school year, the district will hire between 100 and 150 employees. This year, the district was “slightly” overstaffed with an average of 600 FTE, Carter said.

“We’ve been trying to mitigate that over the course of the year, she said.

Director Ann McMurray said she was concerned about students not actively participating in remote learning and asked what schools are doing to keep them engaged. McMurray said some students appeared to have “evaporated” during remote learning and now that they have returned to classrooms, she asked what is being done to track down the students the district lost.

In response, Meadowdale Middle School Principal Joseph Webster — who was one of three principals invited to update the board on in-person learning at their schools — said some students were a challenge to track down but added that early on they developed a system where different staff had different cohorts of students to check on. He said there was only one student they were unable to locate, and staff have been able to stay in contact with the remaining students.

Also during the meeting, second-graders from Spruce Elementary School briefed the board on their work to translate global initiatives into local actions by helping three orphaned baby black bears being cared for at PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynnwood. 

In addition to studying the bear’s life cycle and eating habits, students design toys to encourage them to forage for food since they had no mother to teach them. Students then came up with the idea to create papier-mâché piñatas to fill with snacks. The piñatas were constructed with newspapers and flour, instead of glue, to be safe for the bears’ consumption.

In 2019, Spruce Elementary teacher Dr. Jennie Warmouth was the recipient of the Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship, which allowed her to study polar bears in the Arctic, which is where she got the idea for this project.

Andrea Heller explains how they used flour and newspaper to create papier-mâché piñatas to fill with food and teach bears to forage for food.

As a fundraiser for PAWS, students held a readathon, where they read more than 2,600 books in two days and raised $2,000. One student in the class, Anvita Kavi, read 119 books on her own.

Director Nancy Katims called the project “a model of what project-based learning looks like when it has all the criteria to get kids engaged.”

The topic of class sizes at Mountlake Terrace High School was raised during the meeting’s public comments portion. During her comments, Mountlake Terrace High School Jami Wollan said projected class sizes for next year are unreasonable and unsafe. Only three of the 11 science classes offered had under 33 students per class this year and one class is projected to have more next year — up to 50 students, she said.

“I have personally experienced this as a teacher at Mountlake Terrace High School with my classroom reshuffling and as a parent of a student affected by the shuffle,” she said.

Also during public comment, parent Katherine Ramsey said she is worried that reductions in staffing will not leave enough teachers once students return to campuses.

“We cannot risk increasing class sizes again, especially as we need to be socially distant,” she said.

 District parent Bryan Myrick commented that he had an issue with the recently altered graduation dates for Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace high schools, which are set for June 20 and coincide with Sunday and Father’s Day.

The board also received its regular school building re-entry update update from staff. As of now, all K-12 students who opted for in-person learning have returned to classrooms, said Superintendent Gustavo Balderas.

“We’re just excited to see the kids’ faces and the kids’ smiles when we visit campuses,” he said. “I do appreciate the staff and all their work for making this happen.”

As confirmed COVID-19 cases in Snohomish County continue to rise, the county may be returning to Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan. Counties are individually evaluated every three weeks. The evaluations occur on Mondays with any phase changes taking effect on Friday. The next evaluation is scheduled for this coming Monday, May 3.

“If the district phases down it will have no impact on learning instruction day,” said Assistant Superintendent Dana Geaslen. However, she added the change could impact other school events and extracurricular activities like sports.

Geaslen also provided an update on a pilot project the district is participating in that would allow students and staff experiencing COVID-19 symptoms to perform self-administered tests at school buildings.

The project is a partnership with the Washington Department of Health. It allows anyone 4 years or older — with a parent or guardian’s permission — who may be experiencing symptoms at school, to visit the school’s COVID-19 containment room, self-test and then go home. Test results are received in 48 hours.

The pilot began April 27 at three sites — Meadowdale High, Meadowdale Middle and Spruce Elementary — and is expected to be implemented in all school buildings by May 10. Staff are also looking at a potential drive-thru option for parents to bring their students through if they opt out of the self-administered option.

Regarding summer learning programs, Executive Director of Student Learning Rob Baumgartner said in-person programs for students in grades K-8 will be invitation-only and online programs will be open to all students. Programs will be offered in the morning from July 6-Aug. 5. Also, high school students can take credit recovery courses, options for accelerated learning and online programs with required in-person labs. The program will be offered in the morning and afternoon from July 6-Aug. 12. Locations for both are still to be determined.

Other programs include English Learner Newcomer, Extended School Year and special education programs. Recruitment and registration will begin in coming weeks. On-site child care will be offered and more details will be provided once locations are determined. For more information, visit the district’s summer learning webpage.

In other business, the board discussed learning options for the 2021-22 school year. In addition to offering in-person learning, Balderas said the district would also be looking at fully remote learning options. He then asked for the board’s feedback.

Board President Deborah Kilgore said staff have already considered keeping some aspects of remote learning around for next year. Director Ann McMurray said it would be beneficial to continue to use technology — like recorded lessons — as an academic support tool.

“I felt like the technology may be able to help us solve some of those sticky problems that we haven’t been able to solve in the past,” Kilgore said.

While planning for the 2021-22 school year, Balderas said five days of in-person learning for all students should be the standard for the district.

“That needs to be reviewed and looked at with our (Edmonds Education) Association partners, but I think that should be the expectation,” he said.

In other business, board held a first reading on multiple new business items, including revisions to the following:

– The policy on Freedom of Expression, bringing the district in compliance with the Washington New Voices Act. Once implemented, the policy will give student journalists editorial control over their student-run publications, prohibit speech that violates district policy or procedure related to harassment, intimidation, or bullying. It will also offer more precise language regarding school officials who may only prohibit “inciting of students so as to create a clear and present danger of…material and substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school,” and allows prohibition of speech that incites students to violate these laws.

– The board’s policy regarding students on governing boards. According to staff, using district funds to provide scholarships to individual students represents a gift of public funds and that the practice should be discontinued.

– The district’s sexual health education policy, bringing the district into alignment with state law. Executive Director of Student Learning Rob Baumgartner said the district’s current policy is pretty much a duplicate of the Washington State School Directors’ Association’s existing policy and the revisions were simple. “We’re actually a little ahead in many ways for this one,” he said.

– The district’s graduation requirements, which would outline multiple pathways and list them as a reference in the policy. 

No action was taken on any of the above items.

Balderas closed the meeting with thanks to the community after receiving preliminary results for the district’s proposed $180 million capital levy. Initial results showed the levy was receiving 55% approval.

With a voter turnout of 27% so far, returns from the Snohomish County Elections Office — as of 6:30 p.m. Wednesday — showed the measure receiving 16,975 yes votes to 13,448 votes opposed, for 56% approval.

“That’s a great opportunity and a boost for our schools and our school staff need right now as we finish up the year,” Balderas said.

–By Cody Sexton

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