The Wenatchee School Board held a regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday night, which was dominated by concern over the recent announcement that Colombia Elementary school will be closing. The announcement was made Saturday.

Wenatchee schools limited attendance at the meeting to 120 people, citing fire code concerns.

Superintendent Cory Kalahar began the meeting with a budget review which explained cuts being made in the district, including the closure of Columbia Elementary School.

He said a budget shortfall began in 2022 when new staff members were hired. Kalahar said the misstep occurred during a time when the district was transitioning between outgoing Superintendent Paul Gordon and incoming Superintendent Bill Eagle.

The district later realized there was a $9 million dollar budgeting error in June of 2022 that put the district in a financial hole. Kalahar said efforts to balance the shortfall have been ongoing since and would continue.

He said school spending continues to outpace revenues because of an ongoing decline in enrollment and a reduction in other revenue sources.

The drop in revenues is connected to a reduction in regionalization dollars from the state and the sunset of federal COVID-19 related school funding ($2.8 million) The shortfall is also linked to a drop in Local Effort Assistance funding from the state,  which was triggered by a drop in enrollment and an increase in property values in Wenatchee.

School spending increased after the budget error of 2022. Staffing levels increased between 2021 and 2023 which led to increases in items such as staff insurance costs. Inflation also contributed to rising costs.

Enrollment has dropped 900 in eight years - from 7,655 in the 2014-15 school year to 6,739 in the current 2023-24 school year, including 185 students in the current school alone. An additional drop of 175 is projected in the upcoming 2024-25 school year.

According to the district, the contributing factors to the enrollment decline are the closure of the Alcoa plant (2016-17), the COVID lockdown (2021-22), the addition of private and charter schools options (2021-22), increased housing costs, a decline in birth rates and the number of graduating students outstripping the number of incoming students.

After the $9 million budgeting error was realized, staffing levels were decreased from 942 to 907 between June 2022 and the current school year. (Staffing levels could continue to drop to 861 in the 2024-25 school year to deal with the shortfall.)

Kalahar said the magnitude of the budget challenges ahead are large and will require big changes to the system.

He said the enrollment shortfall is currently being felt at the elementary school level and will move into higher grade levels over time.

Separately, Kalahar said he was often asked why the district hasn't sold some buildings to save money instead of cutting staff. He said the district is restricted on the use of any money derived from the sale of property as it is required to go back into the Capitol Projects Fund.

A breakdown of the district's seven elementary schools shows Columbia Elementary has the fourth highest level of low-income students as well as the second highest level of Hispanic/Latino students.

It has the second lowest number of total students at 314, the second fewest number of teachers (15) while only trailing one other elementary school in the number of classroom spaces it has (26). The school has the lowest number of students per classroom teacher (20.9).

Kalahar said multiple factors led to Columbia Elementary being chosen for closure and consolidation into other schools. They include declining student enrollment, the presence of nine classrooms that are not being used, the lack of projected growth within the school's boundary, low birthrate demographics, and the central location of the school allowing for transportation of students to other schools.

Columbia Elementary Boundary Area - Wenatchee Schools
Columbia Elementary Boundary Area - Wenatchee Schools

Columbia was also chosen for closure because it’s the second smallest school by headcount, which minimizes the number of students and families impacted.

A citizen comment period followed Kalahar’s presentation. Dozens of people during the session which lasted for about 2:30 hours.

Many parents along with several former students spoke highly of Columbia Elementary as a neighborhood school that was one of the few schools that students could walk to.

Some speakers fondly remembered having attended Columbia and expressed a feeling of loss at its closure.

A number of people said the school had many vulnerable students and kids who qualify for free lunch, but still outperformed other schools academically.

Others said they thought the school was being unfairly targeted for closure because of its predominantly minority population.

A few parents spoke of the difficulty of uprooting elementary kids and sending them to strange schools.

There were also complaints that the school was being closed without a public hearing.

City Council member Jose Cuevas spoke as a person who attended the school as a child, and urged the school board to "listen to the voice of the people and the community."

The outpouring of expression over the closure of Columbia Elementary continued until after 9pm.

School Board President Julie Norton closed out the public comment period by thanking those who spoke for the honest comments, and said difficult decisions were being made.

A schedule laid out for next steps starts with informing parents for the consolidation in the next week. The next board meeting on February 13 will begin the 90 period in which a public hearing on the school closure will be held. The school board will be required to take action following the 90-day period at its May 14 meeting.

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