The legislative task force given the job of recommending solutions for Washington’s K-12 school-funding crisis spent more than $500,000 on the work without ever approving a formal proposal.
Meanwhile, lawmakers assigned to the task force claimed roughly $11,300 in expenses while doing the work.
The Education Funding Task Force was created through legislation in 2016 after lawmakers decided not to tackle the last big issue relating to the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision.
The 2012 McCleary decision ruled that lawmakers were violating the state constitution by underfunding K-12 public schools. Justices since 2014 have held the state in contempt of court for not making enough progress toward a full-funding plan.
The bill brought together four Democrats and four Republicans for several months of meetings and authorized a half million dollars to collect and analyze data on K-12 school-staff funding.
The data was to help lawmakers wrestle with the last big unfinished part of the court order: determining how the state will pay the salaries of teachers and school workers.
The justices ruled that the state is responsible for those salaries. Washington’s school districts now fund a big piece of those costs through local property-tax levies.
Fixing the problem presents a complicated stew of obstacles, from how to find more revenue and changing salary structures, to looking at equity between school districts large and small throughout the state.
Nearly 90 percent of the $500,000 budgeted for the task force went toward a consulting company’s work to compile and analyze the data, according to Annie Pennucci, an associate director for the Washington State Institute for Public Policy.
The roughly $50,000 remaining in the budgeted funds paid for staff time the institute spent on task-force work, according to Pennucci.
The consulting firm, Third Sector Intelligence, released its 148-page report in November, giving lawmakers the data they’d sought.
Up through their final meeting last month, however, task-force members couldn’t agree about what to do with the data. But key GOP and Democratic lawmakers say the cost to taxpayers was worth it.
Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia and chief GOP budget writer, said he didn’t originally like the idea of the task force — and voted against the bill that created it.
“But that said, we got data that we had been asking for for three years, that is valuable to solve a complex problem,” said Braun, who ultimately served on the task force.
“Most of the money went to the consultants; the consultants did a reputable job,” he added. “We have a much better understanding of where local (tax) levies are spent now.”
Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes and co-chairwoman of the task force, said the process forced lawmakers to concentrate on McCleary.
“I think it was useful for me, because it carved out the dedicated time for us to work on the McCleary issue and the broader picture of how are going to have a system of support for our kids,” said Lytton, who chairs the House Finance Committee.
Lawmakers spent some additional money claiming per diem and travel expenses related to their task force work in Olympia.
Three of the four senators on the task force claimed at least $3,634, according to Hunter Goodman, secretary of the Senate. The fourth, Braun, did not take any travel or expense money.
On the House side, lawmakers and staff spent roughly $7,700 on travel and expenses, according to data provided by Chief Clerk of the House Bernard Dean.
While the task force has wrapped up, the work of solving McCleary grinds on. In December, Inslee released his proposal to fund the K-12 system.