Lawmakers split over how to address education funding

With area districts already predicting budget problems, the legislature will be asked to make some changes

VANCOUVER — The euphoria that hit Olympia after the state Supreme Court ruled that the legislature had fulfilled its obligation to fully fund basic education lasted a very short time.


Within weeks there were rumblings that ambiguity in the language of the funding, along with how the impending local levy cap was being implemented, would lead to problems.


As Summer wound down, tensions ramped up, and many districts found the school year delayed as teachers went on strike. The argument centered around exactly how much districts were getting from the state. While they saw a windfall, they also had to prepare for the loss of local dollars due to the levy swap part of the legislature’s fix.


This past week, Vancouver Public Schools announced that they expected to see a budget deficit of $11.44 million for the 2019-2020 school year due to the loss of local levy funding, and the raises given to teachers and other union employees.


“We’ve been through budget cuts before, but nothing to this extent,” said Pat Nuzzo, district spokesperson.


“Unless there’s some legislative changes to the McLeary fix, or additional state funding, we’ll have to make budget cuts,” Nuzzo says, “including workforce reductions to balance revenue and expenses next year.”


That last statement is something lawmakers, in general, don’t want to hear. Rep. Paul Harris (17th District)  was a key part of the group that came up with the education funding fix. But he says their bill included a 3.5 percent cap on raises in the first year of the fix. He blames last-minute legislation by Democrats at the end of the 2018 session for removing that safeguard.


“On a straight party line vote that bill went away, and that meant basically it was a free-for-all for this one-time money,” says Harris.


As much as legislators clearly have other priorities they’d like to focus on as the 2019 legislative session gets underway in Olympia, it seems the education funding issue just won’t go away.


At his Associated Press Legislative Preview on Thursday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said lawmakers need to find $4 billion in funding. The additional $2 billion added at the end of the last session was one-time funding, and lawmakers now must find ways to keep it going for the next two years.


At a town hall meeting for the 18th District earlier this month, Sen. Ann Rivers said she would like to see the legislature take a wait-and-see approach.


“We just turned so many knobs, and now we kind of need to see what happened,” said Rivers. “We know we have to do some more work in special education. I think we’ll get there.”


Rep. Monica Stonier (49th District) a Democrat, said she would like to see a potential fix to how the state calculates living expenses for districts when it comes to calculating regionalized funding.


“There was a radius of property values that was included. When it came down to Southwest Washington, they stopped at the river,” Stonier told a crowd at a town hall meeting this past weekend. “Which means the housing market in the Portland area was not considered. So that is the fix that I think we need to look at, because that means that Southwest Washington did not get the full radius of property values to account for what their dollars from the state would be.”


“I expect action will probably end up taking place because of the Democrat majority that’s up in Olympia right now,” said 17th District Rep. Vicki Kraft, a Republican. “I personally do believe we should wait to see how this plays out. We have not even gone two years with this really being implemented.”


State Schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal has already issued his recommendation that some districts should be able to lift the lid on their local levies, which were capped at $1.50 per $1,000. Reykdal already came under fire recently for rubber-stamping an increase of the levy lid for Seattle Public Schools, which reportedly lost $100 million in the levy swap. Inslee has already said he would support allowing some property-rich districts to seek more local funding.


Harris says he’s open to looking at potential fixes this session, but the idea of lifting the levy lid makes him uneasy.


“If we raise the levy lid, and all of a sudden this money ends up back in basic education, and I have a disparity again — which is what I’m really concerned about — there cannot be unlimited enrichment going on,” Harris says.


One thing Harris says he would be open to talking about this session would be better defining what a teacher’s work day should include, and what local enrichment levies should be able to cover.


“I do realize we have a problem,” he says. “I’m not sure the levy lid is the fix. It might be, but what has been proposed to me is a little scary.”


The Supreme Court, in its McCleary decision, determined that districts had become too reliant on local enrichment levies to fund teacher salaries. In most cases that was through TRI Pay, which is money teachers had traditionally received for work outside of their base contract. Over time, that money increasingly became part of the basic compensation package for educators.


Outside of the levy swap issue, which hurt districts like Battle Ground, the state also did away with a salary schedule, leaving it to local districts to determine their pay scale.


“The recurring challenge we face in school funding, and in school policy quite frankly, is that our school districts really appreciate having local control over how they pay, what they pay for, and what they do in their schools,” said Stonier. “And frankly our families appreciate that too, because that means that you have an opportunity to weigh in at your school boards for how you think things should go.”


But it also has meant that districts, such as Camas where property values are higher, could afford to pay their teachers more, and invest in more programs, while nearby poorer districts like Washougal had trouble holding onto educators.


And districts like La Center said they had another problem. The state did away with a salary schedule, instead funding districts based on a median amount for teachers. With a more experienced workforce, La Center said they were receiving less than their total compensation to teachers, leaving them to fill the shortfall out of local dollars, which were also being severely cut with the levy swap.


“Some districts came out ahead, but some districts did not,” sats Nuzzo. “So the funding wasn’t equitable across the state.”


Already some districts are looking at ways to get around the levy cap. Vancouver renamed its Maintenance and Operations Levy to an “Education and Operations” Levy, allowing them to allocate some of the money to cover extra programs or educators. Evergreen introduced two levies, with a new Technology levy that would cost around $.31 per thousand dollars, on top of the $1.50 per thousand for the M&O levy.


“I think that everybody’s hoping that legislators will go back and revisit the legislation to come up with a fix,” said Nuzzo.


“There’s a little fatigue, to be quite frank, with McCleary,” admitted Harris. “We will always have needs in education, so I don’t think we will ever be done funding education. It’s our paramount duty and I truly believe we will always be adding a little and looking at different programs. Because I believe education is always changing, and I think it should.”


While raising the levy lid could help districts close budget gaps, it’s not something all of them support.


“I’ve heard from some of the patrons in our district that their property taxes went up, and then we still don’t have enough money to run our schools,” admitted Nuzzo. “And we’re gonna turn around and ask for a levy at $1.50 per thousand. But if they turn around and raise that cap, and then we’ll have to go back out and ask for more money? I think our voters would be upset about that.”


The property tax question came up during the 49th District town hall meeting, with one constituent saying their bill increased by $1,000 last year, despite the fact they’re on a fixed income.


Rep. Sharon Wylie said there needs to be a conversation in this session about other potential funding sources outside of property taxes.


“As long we can do our job and find more balanced sources of income than to balance our education budget on property tax primarily, we should be able to see a reduction in that in the next cycle,” said Wylie.


The legislature did approve one-time property tax relief for this year, so many voters should see their bills go down.


“It’s hard to explain, and it’s hard for people to have faith in that,” Wylie said. “But there’s a lot of work to be done and we’re, I think, all committed to trying to have a system that doesn’t balance on the backs of people in their homes.”


For Kraft, the education funding conundrum comes down to one question she hears a lot from voters: “You cannot say that more money was not given. How do we end up in a worse position?”


While Democrats, who have a majority in both houses, seem more open to looking at fixes in this session, they seem united in the belief that those should be small tweaks and not wholesale changes.


“Moving forward I think we have to look at some smoothing mechanisms to help funding for school districts be a little bit more predictable as some of these fixes are coming along the way,” said Stonier. “But we certainly don’t want to get back to where we were before where you have these inequities.”

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