Budget Cuts: Elementary Schools Prepare for a Future With Less

All three dean of student jobs at Key Peninsula elementary schools have been eliminated. Cuts to other employees will follow.


Declining enrollment across the Peninsula School District and a $12 million deficit for the 2023-24 school year are to blame for eliminating five dean of student positions at area elementary schools, including all three on the Key Peninsula.

Evergreen, Vaughn and Minter Creek join Artondale and Discovery elementary as schools with fewer than 425 students that will lose deans at the start of the new school year. The dean of students is akin to an assistant principal, focusing mostly on students, including attendance and truancy issues. The remaining dean of student roles at the bigger elementary schools — all in Gig Harbor — will be restructured and reposted as deputy principals, consistent with other school districts, according to PSD.

Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Education John Hellwich said in a statement to Key Peninsula News that the formula used to determine school support is aligned to school district best practices.

“These (five elementary) schools have strong systems of support in place for students and work collaboratively to ensure the needs of all students, especially our most at-risk, are met.”

Some agree with Hellwich.

“Our jobs will get harder, but we’ll do what’s best for the kids,” said Evergreen Elementary Principal Hugh Maxwell. “We can take on things like attendance issues and communicating with parents, but the challenge is filling that void for students with learning behaviors and social-emotional issues.”

PSD said it tried to keep budget cuts away from the classroom, but some district employees suggested eliminating deans at elementary schools will indirectly impact classes. 

“Teachers are dependent on deans,” said one district employee who wished to remain anonymous.

Today, teachers can call on a dean to remove a disruptive student from the classroom so teachers can continue with a lesson. Moving forward, some teachers fear they will be tasked with de-escalating individual situations, taking time away from the class. School counselors also will be asked to take on more of a disciplinary role, which takes them away from running valuable small group sessions.

“That dean role is so crucial because it allows counselors to do our jobs and principals to do their jobs,” said Evergreen Elementary Counselor Bethany McDermott. 

Another loss to local elementary schools are paraprofessionals who provide much needed support to teachers and staff, not to mention students. According to one employee, schools today can support around 60 high-need students throughout the day in small groups. Starting next year it will be less than half of that. District employees also mentioned that slower student assessments, delayed programs, and “problems running an effective and safe recess” could be a result of fewer paraprofessionals.

“Funding schools based on equity is fantastic in some regards,” said one district employee who preferred to remain anonymous. “But I don’t understand why 89% of the children at Voyager Elementary, who are at or above grade level, need the same amount as a KP school that only has 40% like that. We need help.”

“Elementary is where a lot of that good (social and emotional) work happens before students move on,” McDermott said. “If we can’t have those interventions, we’ve lost those opportunities and we can’t expect the students to be successful.”

Maxwell said the district needs to get creative to work around the budgeting issues. Some ideas to do that, according to staff around the district: campaign to bring parent volunteers back into the schools, arrange for KPMS students to read to elementary students and work with the district to maximize their Title 1 funding, which helps schools at risk of failing state standards. 

Maxwell also said Evergreen might have to suspend some of their more innovative plans, like STEM education and taking advantage of their new outdoor classroom, so staff can focus on work normally done by the dean.

The district also eliminated 16 positions from its office administration, including communications, transportation, a variety of coordinators, specialists and management positions. Additional staffing reductions will affect middle and high school libraries, office administration, career center and attendance specialists.

With another year or two of declining enrollment expected across the state, according to the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, it doesn’t look like those roles will be backfilled any time soon. That means any negative effects in elementary schools next year could potentially affect middle schools down the road.

Reykdal spoke at a local Key Peninsula Democrats meeting in April, where he said, “districts will make brutally difficult choices over the next couple of years” due to declining enrollment trends. “We’re seeing families home-school in numbers we haven’t seen in the past.” 

Home school enrollment across the state jumped nearly 100% year-over-year to 40,000 at the start of 2020-21 school year, according to Washington State’s Home-Based Instruction website. That number has since dropped to 29,000 this school year, still more than 40% above pre-pandemic numbers.

School funding makes up about 43% of the Washington state budget every two years, and about 85% of the district’s budget is based solely on enrollment. If the state put a monetary value on students, each one would be worth about $15,000 in revenue from the local, state and federal funding. So, every 100 students leaving PSD is essentially a $1.5 million loss. 

“For the short term it’ll be pretty tough,” Reykdal said, noting he believes enrollment trends will start to reverse in two years. “Levies and federal dollars can’t keep up with the current rate of inflation. Structurally, it’s hard on school districts because they don’t get to determine rates of inflation and someone else (the state legislature) determines their budgets.”

After an initial drop of 843 students after the 2019-20 school year, the district is slowly creeping back to near pre-pandemic numbers. Before the pandemic shut down schools in March 2020, PSD saw record numbers with an average of 9,239 students enrolled.

PSD middle schools have suffered the greatest decline, losing about 11% of students since the end of the 2019-20 school year.

There’s a faint light at the end of the long tunnel. As of March 2023, enrollment this school year has grown by more than 400, from 8,466 at the start of the school year to 8,869, and all grades have exceeded their 2022-23 forecasted numbers except kindergarten, which broke even. If the numbers are sustained, those 400 students would account for an additional $4 million. 

“We have larger classes than ever before and we’re continuing to grow,” Maxwell said about Evergreen.

He and other KP elementary school administrators will meet with their staffs a number of times before the end of the school year to get aligned on their new roles and responsibilities.

“My job is to make sure teachers can teach and students can learn,” Maxwell said. “We’ll all work closely, and I know we’ll somehow fill the void. It’s just going to be harder.”