Budget update for 2023-24 school year, seeking input

A Message from Superintendent Greg Baker

Dear staff, students, families and community members,

It’s that time of year when school districts begin developing their budgets for the following school year, and I would like to share some early thoughts regarding budget planning for the 2023-24 school year and ask for your ideas and input.

District budgets are dependent on the decisions from our governor and legislature. Within the next few weeks, we will hear the governor’s budget priorities, and in January, the legislature will begin its session and eventually make funding decisions that will impact districts’ budgets for 2023-24.

I recently attended a conference with school district superintendents, school board members and state officials. A main topic was the upcoming legislative session and what it could mean for school districts, and indications at this point are that it will be one of the most challenging budget planning processes we have faced.

While we are hopeful that the state will provide some much-needed help, I am balancing my desire to be optimistic with my responsibility to be practical and careful.

There are several contributing factors to our likely budget challenges, which are affecting Bellingham Public Schools and districts across the state. These include:

  • End of COVID-specific federal funding: By the end of this current school year, we will have spent all the ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funds we received from the federal government, which were short-term funds set to support districts through the pandemic. These funds helped in a variety of ways; we were able to enhance our staffing levels, lower class sizes during the pandemic and increase many services, for example our health and mental health services, e.g., more nurses, health room assistants and mental health specialists. Without this additional short-term funding, districts will need to rely on their local levies.
  • Increasing costs for resources and compensation: With escalating costs, it is more expensive today to operate our schools and district compared to previous years. Our largest resource is people and as compensation goes up, the state only gives districts funding for some staff.  Another example is costs related to support services, such as Special Education, continue to rise. Districts do not receive adequate funding from the state or federal government to support students. Once again, districts will need to spend more out of their local levies.

With both of these factors, you’ll notice a theme: school districts need to use local levy funds to fill budget holes. But there is a catch; the legislature capped the amount of money school districts can ask from their community in the form of levies. And we already use our levies to fund many crucial programs and staff. (A reminder that “levies are for learning” and can be used to fund staff and programs. Bonds can only be used for building and construction. Both levies and bonds are dependent on voter approval and districts across our state rely on these funding measures to operate.)

As I see it, there are two directions to go for this budget season. 1) The legislature allocates adequate funding for schools, which we hope they do in this coming legislative session, or, 2) districts will make very hard decisions, and reprioritize spending. This is so challenging as we know that all our investments in our students and programs are important. We do not want to pull back on improvements we have made recently.

So, we will advocate that our legislature must provide additional funding to better support school districts and all our children. And at the same time, we will need to plan for reductions in  many areas and reprioritizing.

In my 12+ years as superintendent, I have learned that school finance can be messy and unpredictable, but we have made it through difficult budget seasons in the past, and we will again. We take a measured approach to preparing every budget and prioritize classroom funding for students. We will use The Bellingham Promise and our budget guiding principles, which we use every year and were critical as we planned the 2019-20 budget, which was another challenging year. We have also been on “budget planning roller coaster rides” where the landscape looks dire, then better, then worse… then the state provides additional funding at what feels like the last minute.

As I do every year, I am attending many school staff and parent group meetings this fall and winter to help answer questions and share updates about our district. During these meetings, I share budget updates and listen to feedback. Your input is so important, and we would like to hear from you, whether via email, in person or through this feedback form. Please submit your response by noon on Dec. 14. We will use your feedback as we continue to refine our budget plans for 2023-24.

If you have any questions, please let me know. If you enjoy digging deep into numbers and school funding, please see our budget webpage, which we update regularly. It includes links to our most recent Priorities for Progress for 2022-23 and comprehensive budget book for the current budget.

Thank you in advance for your ideas, feedback and help,

Greg Baker

Reply to greg.baker@bellinghamschools.org