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Issaquah School District approval cuts to athletics, mental health program amid enrollment decline

The plan has not been popular with some parents as the cuts include essentially gutting the district's Positive Behavior and Social Emotional Support department.

SEATTLE — The Issaquah School District school board approved an $11.38 million reduction in its budget Thursday, saying the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to a decline in enrollment and a rise in labor and non-labor costs.

The move has not been popular with parents and staff as the budget reduction includes essentially gutting the district's Positive Behavior and Social Emotional Support (PBSES) department. PBSES began in 2015 and teaches school staff how to be proactive with kids to curb future serious mental health interventions.

A decline in enrollment is the primary factor for the cuts. The school district has seen an estimated 1,760 fewer students over a three-year period, according to the district.

The enrollment decline directly impacts revenue that is generated on a per-student basis from local, state and federal funding.

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The school district said the financial decline has been steady. In the 2019-2020 school year, the district had a beginning fund balance of $42.3 million and ended with $38.4 million, according to the district. The district said it is projecting the current school year will end at a balance of $26 million, or an overall 38% decrease in reserve balances. For the current school year, the district adopted a $15 million budget deficit.

The school district said this is not sustainable and that it would become insolvent within two school years if no action is taken.

The school district said the "deficit, coupled with rising costs and continued enrollment decline necessitate reducing programs."

In the plan, the school district would save nearly $3 million by cutting the PBSES coaches for its elementary and middle schools.

Parents and school district staff expressed their concerns at the Issaquah school board meeting on Thursday.

"Over the course of the last three years, we have consistently heard from the board and our community about the toll COVID-19 has taken on the mental health of students and teachers alike," said Tori Berntsen, a middle school PBSES coach.  "I encourage you [the board] to support the PBSES coaches. We are on the frontlines doing the work with students and staff."

The plan also makes cuts to the school district's athletic program and its athletic directors.

"Our athletic directors are more so," said one parent. "Talk to them about their jobs. Talk to the student-athletes who interact with them. They are an integral part of the high school process and an advocate for these student-athletes."

"It takes a village for us to raise our kids," said Marie Werbel, parent and athletic coordinator at Liberty High School. "I've seen at both of these schools these athletic directors give their blood, sweat and tears for our students, as you just heard from Liberty but also at Skyline. They fight for helping those kids be the best that they can be."

The plan comes as Issaquah voters approved a proposition in April to continue funding for academic programs and support, student and classroom services, including PBSES. The measure renewed an expiring levy that provides 15.6% of the district's revenue.

However, during the meeting, a school board member said PBSES was funded through levies in the past but won’t be going forward. The board member said it was a miscommunication to voters and that the board marketed the levy incorrectly.

Voters also approved another proposition to pay for a fourth high school. Superintendent Ron Thiele said the district's high schools are continuing to deal with overcrowding and that the proposition is separate from the budget reductions.

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