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Staff layoffs, reductions in hours approved by Bellingham School Board

Forty two Bellingham Public Schools teachers will not be hired back in any capacity for the 2023-24 school year as a result of the district’s $16 million budget cut, according to a recently released personnel recommendation list.

Fifteen more teachers are getting their hours reduced and are coming back on a part-time basis. One library media specialist will also not be hired back, the list shows.

The personnel changes were approved unanimously by the board at its Thursday evening meeting as part of the consent agenda. Board members held no discussions of the staffing changes at the meeting prior to approval.

Cordata Elementary School is losing the most certificated personnel of all of the Bellingham Public Schools, with five teachers assigned to the school not being hired back in any capacity for the 2023-24 school year.

The district will still honor required class size ratios, though, according to Bellingham Public Schools spokeswoman Dana Smith. Some teachers may be relocated to other schools within the district to fill any possible gaps in staff. No schools will be disproportionately affected by a reduction in overall staff, she said.

The school district announced in late April that the $16 million deficit would affect staffing, resources and class sizes for the 2023-24 school year, citing a poor state funding model, the loss of federal COVID dollars, increased costs and decreased enrollment as primary reasons for the cuts.

The Bellingham Public Schools 2022-23 budget totaled more than $219,000,000. The 7.5% cut will drop school spending back to 2021-22 levels.

Staffing changes

The personnel recommendations document lists 65 total certificated personnel as resigning, retiring, or receiving terminations. Those in such positions require certification from the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, or OSPI, to be hired. Those jobs include teachers, counselors, occupational or physical therapists, school nurses and principals.

Two teachers and one psychologist are resigning, while one teacher is retiring. Two teachers and one principal are voluntarily reducing their hours and returning on a part-time basis.

The document lists 36 certificated personnel taking some amount of personal leave during the 2023-24 school year. That list includes teachers, district-wide psychologists, a counselor, a district-wide speech-language pathologist and a district-wide director.

The document also lists the planned retirements and resignations of classified personnel. Classified positions do not require specific state certifications. Those jobs include para-educators, administrative assistants, accountants, HR professionals and communications specialists.

A food service elementary lead and an administrative assistant are resigning, while a fiscal support specialist in the district office is partially resigning. A para-educator and a para-educator bus attendant are also retiring.

Dozens of paraeducators and other classified staff facing layoffs and reductions in hours packed the May 18 board meeting and asked the district to reconsider or find alternative solutions to address the budget deficit.

Many spoke about the reduction in hours they will be facing for the upcoming school year and how the cutbacks will affect them, their families, the students and their ability to safely do their jobs.

Signs reading “Paras are the key to safety,” “Vote for equity,” “Cuts take away from the most vulnerable learners” and “Keep expert professionals by giving them a living wage” were taped to the back windows of the meeting room, propped along the bleachers or held. Many of the staff members in attendance at the standing-room only meeting wore red shirts in solidarity.

“Taking from the lowest earners will have the smallest impact on the budget, but potentially the biggest impact on the students. We are the employees who provide direct services,” said Carin Carter, a para-educator in the life skills program.

Elisabeth Epperson, a para-educator in the special education program, said she could not be prouder of the work she and her colleagues do and the effect that work has on the students and community. In the face of cuts affecting some of the district’s lowest paid employees, however, Epperson asked the board members to ask themselves if they valued the time of classified staff members.

“I want the board to go back and take a second look and ask if it makes sense to cut our time — the people our students look to first when they are scared, confused and need support, the people they look to when they want to celebrate their accomplishments or need encouragement — or does it make sense to cut it elsewhere where other people make a lot more per hour than we do? We are told we are all in this together, but it doesn’t feel that way right now,” Epperson said.

Administrative changes

Several administrative roles already were reduced through attrition during the 2022-23 school year. As of Friday, three executive and director-level positions had been vacated and one director retired effective at the end of the current school year, Smith told The Bellingham Herald.

Included in the list of 60 administrative staff the district recommended to the school board for employment for the 2023-24 school year were three administrators who are currently facing criminal charges for allegedly failing in their legal obligations to report a student’s sexual assaults brought to their attention nearly a year prior.

Meghan V. Dunham, Jeremy G. Louzao and Maude Chimere Hackney were all recommended to be hired for the upcoming school year, the district’s personnel recommendations document shows.

Squalicum High School Assistant Principals Jeremy G. Louzao, 41, left, and Meghan V. Dunham, 50, and Bellingham High School Assistant Principal Maude Chimere Hackney, 41, have been accused of failing to report sexual assaults that a student brought to their attention nearly a year ago. Each was issued a criminal citation Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022, for failure to report, a gross misdemeanor.

Dunham, Louzao and Hackney were each criminally cited in Whatcom County District Court in early December with one count of failure to report, which is a gross misdemeanor. All three have entered not guilty pleas. Gross misdemeanors are punishable by up to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

All of the administrators are mandatory reporters and are required by state law to report any suspected abuse or neglect of a child to law enforcement or the Washington State Department of Children, Youth & Families.

At the time the criminal citations were issued in December, Louzao and Dunham were serving as assistant principals at Squalicum High School, while Hackney was an assistant principal at Bellingham High School.

All three were reassigned in early January to the district’s Department of Teaching and Learning, where they currently remain. The district does not have a timeline on any potential changes in assignment for the three employees, Smith told The Herald Friday morning.

Their criminal cases are pending, court records show.

When asked if any guilty pleas in the court cases would preclude them from employment, whether the school district had policies surrounding criminal convictions for employees or whether the district had specific policies related to criminal convictions for mandatory reporting violations, Smith told The Herald “We follow state law regarding mandatory termination of school district employees upon a conviction or guilty plea for certain felony crimes specified in statute.”

“We continue to believe our employees acted in good faith to support and protect the victim, and we await the conclusion of what has been a long legal process,” Smith added.