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Series of meetings held to explain financial situation, gather input on priorities to guide estimated $4.3 million in school cuts

SETH GORDON - A group of parents and community members discuss what they value most for their student's educational experience Thursday night during an exercise at the Newberg School District's budget forum at Newberg High School. The district is gathering feedback as it prepares to cut $4.3 million from the 2018-2019 budget.

Amid confusion and anxiety among teachers and parents after announcing it will have to cut $4.3 million from the 2018-2019 budget, the Newberg School District held a series of meetings to provide more details and solicit feedback on what to prioritize as it begins the budget process.

That effort was capped by a pair of public budget forums last week, at which parents engaged in an exercise, known as "keep-stop-start," to help them weigh in what they value most about what the district is doing for students and what they would like to see change.

"You can do this multiple ways, but we tried to make this something that we could consistently get information from parents, community members, from staff, from students and compile all that to really get a sense of the overall community and what do people want involved in the educational experience," Superintendent Kym LeBlanc-Esparza said.

District leaders began the process by engaging with staff, including at a question and answer session Feb. 7. They acknowledged that communication about the financial situation suffered as district staff spent more of its time in school buildings following the $1.5 million in staff cuts it was forced to make in early September following an unexpected enrollment drop of more than 100 students.SETH GORDON - Participants in the Newberg School District's public budget forum examine the 'Keep-Stop-Start' posters created by other parents and community members Thursday night at Newberg High School. The district had parents discuss what they like, what they don't like and contribute ideas for new tactics the districts, then place dots next to the ideas they felt were most important.

Those meetings included a budget presentation that the district has since translated into a video, which it has posted online at bit.do/CommunityInput, a website where parents and community members can submit questions and feedback. It includes a section with answers to already-submitted questions, as well as notes from the initial teacher Q&A session and updates on the budget process.

"Through our lack of communication, we left a vacuum that led to stress and anxiety among staff," LeBlanc-Esparza said at the staff session. "We definitely could have communicated much more effectively."

Parents asked many of the same questions that staff did while at parent-group meetings at each school the past couple of weeks, as well as at a series of Q&A sessions with parents. The first of those was held with parent leaders in the district, but two more were added and made open to any parents.

"Our hope was that we would answer enough questions and provide enough background knowledge that people could come to these forums and actually contribute in really meaningful ways," LeBlanc-Esparza said.

LeBlanc-Esparza and assistant superintendent Dave Parker explained how the compounding effects of mis-projections on state revenue, along with the unexpected enrollment drop, forced the district to spend funds that otherwise have been left over in its ending fund balance (EFB), which subsequently fell to $372,000 or just 0.8 percent of the general fund budget.

Of the $4.3 million in cuts, $1.3 million will be set aside to build the EFB back up to 2.5 percent of the budget at the end of the 2018-2019 school year and then up to $2 million (3.9 percent) in 2019-2020.

Ultimately, LeBlanc-Esparza said the goal will be to reach 7 percent, but many parents at the Q&A session March 13 still expressed a lack of trust in how the district will solve the problem moving forward.

"I feel like, more than anything, what I took away was that there were some mistakes made," said Shelly Didway, who has three children in the district. "I didn't see very much transparency in taking any kind of actual ownership of those, which was frustrating. But at the same time, that energy going backwards isn't going to help."

The keep-stop-start exercises, which principals also led at both parent and staff meetings, involved small groups brainstorming and listing ideas on sticky notes, which they then put on a poster under each of the three categories: programs and practices they would like the district to keep doing, stop doing or start doing. For each category, they were then given three dots to place next to the ideas or ideas they felt were most important to them. Afterward, the posters were put on display so that participants could see what other groups had produced.

"It was very nice to meet with other folks with kids in the district and get their perspectives and it was nice to walk around and look at those posters," parent Jonathan Vail said after the second public forum March 15. "I noticed a lot of common themes."

Many parents, though, found the exercise, especially those held at the parent group meetings, to be frustrating because they didn't have access to actual budget items with costs attached.

The district did have senior staff on hand to answer questions and provided some background materials at the two public forums last week, but many parents still found it difficult to make choices without more detailed cost information.

LeBlanc-Esparza explained that the goal of the exercise was to flesh out what people valued and when all the data from teachers and parents across the district is aggregated, provide that information to the budget committee.

A committee of district staff, teachers and parents led by director of data and assessment Derek Brown will be crunching the numbers over the next two weeks, and LeBlanc-Esparza said the analysis will be made available on the budget site.

"I'm optimistic that they're including the community, but we knew this was probably going to be an issue and some of these things should have been done a little sooner," parent Morgan Hartnell said. "But it's a step in the right direction, so I was happy to see the community there and I was interested to hear what other people's concerns and priorities were."

Moving forward, district and union leadership are scheduled to meet in coming weeks to begin collaborating on budget scenarios.

District leaders have until April 17 to compete a first draft of the 2018-2019 budget to present to the school board budget committee by May 1. Subsequently, any notifications to staff about further cuts for 2018-2019 won't be available until after April 17.

The school board is scheduled to vote to approve the budget at its June 12 meeting.

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