Lindsay Britton

Dayton High School English teacher Lindsay Britton will leave the district this summer due to layoffs. Her next stop is South Carolina.

DAYTON — When Dayton High School teacher Lindsay Britton starts work in the fall, it will be more than 2,700 miles from the classroom she has now.

At West Florence High, with a population of 1,700 students, Britton will teach English language arts only to sophomores, not across high school grades as she’s done this year in Dayton.

“It will be a major culture shock compared to Dayton High,” she said.

Moving to South Carolina was not Britton’s first choice. Not by a country mile.

Britton, a first-year teacher in Dayton, was one of two certified staff caught in Dayton School District’s budget reductions in May. The other was Susan Stege, the school’s K-12 counselor and an art teacher.

It’s likely there will also be a loss of three teaching assistant positions, plus fewer hours for food-service workers and office staff when school opens in the fall, Superintendent Doug Johnson said.

He said English will be taught next year by another current Dayton High teacher who is certified to teach the subject.

The situation has been very difficult, he said.

“We value all of our staff, and the things they bring to our kids. But the bottom line is there is not enough money to go around.”

Some of that comes from low student enrollment — Dayton School District has about 385 full-time enrollees — and some comes from state funding rules, he said.

Washington state legislators recently voted to raise local levy amounts in 2020 from $1.50 to $2.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value. While helpful for many school districts, Dayton did not get a positive gain, the superintendent said.

Levies, a property tax passed by voters to help school districts pay for classes and programs beyond basic education parameters, had always enjoyed generous support from area residents, Johnson said.

The raising of the levy lid in April still contained language that limits collection to a total of $2,500 per student in school districts with less than 40,000 students.

The land around the city has a high tax value, thanks to the energy industry and farming, but state law won’t allow the district to gather all the money voters approved, he added, noting in a board meeting report there were opportunities to increase funding but many lawmakers said they would not support a tax increase.

In the end, it means Dayton will collect about $960,000 for the 2019-2020 school year, $200,000 less than last year, Johnson said.

The district already operates on a slim budget, with little buffer for emergencies, he said.

Parents and students who came to Dayton’s board meeting in mid-May were clearly there to support Britton.

Many spoke of Britton’s teaching ability, giving her credit for not only changing their perception of English class, but of education overall. Kids who’d struggled in middle school were flourishing in Britton’s class, parents told board members.

Melissa Lindley’s son Keon, 15, is among those students, Lindley said at the meeting.

“He’s really connected in English and doing way better. He actually wants to go to class.”

Lindley later said Keon is not alone, that other parents have reported similar success after their children began turning their English Language grades around.

“They are concerned now that their kids are getting better grades, now they are losing that teacher,” she said.

Lindley said Britton really wants high-schoolers to succeed. She has modified curriculum to better fit learning styles and sent out encouraging and positive emails to parents of her students.

“She is amazingly prepared for a first-year teacher. I feel she goes above and beyond in trying to help kids.”

There has been talk of families pulling their kids out of Dayton High School over losing Britton, she added.

That’s definitely not what she wants to see, Britton said recently.

“I love Dayton. We have amazing teachers at Dayton. And to know students will be leaving, and their classrooms will be more empty makes me incredibly sad.”

Britton, husband Gary and their four children moved to College Place in 2013 from Missouri when Gary was discharged from the Air Force.

It was time to come home, said Lindsay, who was born and raised in Pasco. Lindsay’s mom died in 2009 at age 54, and being so far away while undergoing emotional trauma made everything “100 times worse,” she said.

The Brittons began working at Washington State Penitentiary. Lindsay decided since she had to get her Washington teaching certificate to teach locally, she might as well go for broke at Walla Walla University.

“So I worked full-time while getting my master’s degree,” she said.

When the English teaching job opened in Dayton. Britton said she was hesitant to apply.

“I was not from a small town and being the only high school English teacher is pretty daunting.”

Initially, Britton found she had to prove herself to students.

“I was on the outside, I was the enemy,” she recalled.

“It took a lot of effort to to show them ‘I am here for you, I really care about your need.’ Once I did, they treated me like family.”

Britton said she’s found her teaching superpower in treating teens like the adults they are becoming and making the classroom feel like a tight-knit community.

One student wrote a letter to Britton, who shared it with the Union-Bulletin.

“Coming into your classroom for both English and yearbook is like taking a break from everything else that is going on; a similar feeling to coming home at the end of a long day,” the student wrote, explaining Britton’s teaching had crossed out the negativity and stress of other English classes.

His English teacher lost her job not because she’s not excellent, Johnson agreed, but because of a convoluted legal formula of seniority earned anywhere in Washington, and which employees are certified to teach what subjects.

His interactions with Britton have made it clear the teacher is concerned about the success of every student, he emphasized.

“This decision was not taken lightly,” board member Fred White told those gathered at May’s board meeting.

“There were numerous meetings on this. This is not a personal decision. I wish it was different, I really do.”

Board chair Katie Leid reminded the crowd she and the others have a fiscal responsibility to shore up the district’s budget.

“We don’t want to make any more cuts that necessary,” she said.

Jim Gow, a representative with the Washington Education Association union, said Dayton’s RIF — reduction in force — followed all the basic legal rules related to layoffs.

Districts like Dayton have been unfairly affected by the funding model the Legislature adopted to try to fully fund basic education, Gow said.

“Small districts get hit hard trying to staff all these diverse programs in order to retain students. That’s how you end up in this situation.”

School boards and superintendents ultimately decide what they want to offer beyond the required classes, Gow said.

“It’s all about choices.”

Johnson has said Dayton voters have made it clear they want the high school to offer the career and technical classes that serve a farming community.

Britton knows about hard choices.

“I expected to teach in Dayton until I retired. We were going to buy a house in the area. I wanted to stay put for the long haul.”

Reweaving her career has put a strain on her family and marriage, Britton said.

“It’s been very emotional at our house. We’ve argued. I’m trying to fight off depression and uncertainty.”

When no teaching job was available in the region, it was obvious trying to get by as a substitute teacher until a position opened was unrealistic.

“Substitute teaching is not enough to support my family and pay my student loans. And it wasn’t the plan with my master’s degree.”

Britton dried her tears and got busy, she said.

“I put in about 24 applications. I ended up with five phone interviews within a week. We decided whoever offers first, we’ll take it. We’re not going to fight it anymore. It was destroying my relationship.”

It’s what she’s taught her students, the teacher added.

“‘Life isn’t fair and you have to be responsible for your choices.’”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.

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