Politics & Government

Still no price tag on McCleary education-funding fix

Stephanie McCleary, right, and her son Carter McCleary, 17, left, talk to reporters Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016, in Olympia, Wash., following a Washington State Supreme Court hearing on the ongoing battle surrounding the state's constitutional requirement to properly fund basic education. Stephanie McCleary is one of the plaintiffs in the case. A task force of lawmakers received data Tuesday that they say will help them come up with a plan to solve remaining shortfalls outlined in the lawsuit.
Stephanie McCleary, right, and her son Carter McCleary, 17, left, talk to reporters Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016, in Olympia, Wash., following a Washington State Supreme Court hearing on the ongoing battle surrounding the state's constitutional requirement to properly fund basic education. Stephanie McCleary is one of the plaintiffs in the case. A task force of lawmakers received data Tuesday that they say will help them come up with a plan to solve remaining shortfalls outlined in the lawsuit. The Associated Press file

State lawmakers have spent the past six months waiting on a report to help them pinpoint the cost of complying with a longstanding court order to fully fund public schools.

On Tuesday, the consultants’ report arrived, indicating that local school districts spend an average of $14,651 per full-time employee to bolster what the state pays to hire teachers and other school staff.

But even with the report in hand, lawmakers still aren’t on the same page about which portion of those salary costs are a state responsibility — something they’ll need to decide before coming up with a price tag for fully funding school employee salaries as required in the McCleary case.

In the landmark school-funding case, the state Supreme Court said the state needs to cover the actual costs of retaining and recruiting staff, and must end the unconstitutional reliance on local school district property tax levies to pay school employees by September 2018.

The state is in contempt of court and being fined $100,000 per day over the Legislature’s failure to come up with a plan to meet the 2018 funding deadline.

State Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, who serves on the Legislature’s education funding task force that is grappling with the issue, said lawmakers still need to agree on what kind of supplemental pay falls under the state’s definition of basic education, a designation that determines whether or not the state must pay for it.

Tuesday’s report didn’t include recommendations about which types of added pay should be covered by the state, rather than by local districts.

That’s for the bipartisan task force of lawmakers to try to figure out before the Legislature reconvenes Jan. 9, Billig said.

“People are like, ‘Oh, just fully fund basic education. Just do it,’” Billig said.

“There is no ‘it,’” he said Tuesday. “We have to come up with the framework, and then we have to find out how much that costs.”

Billig said the data gathered by the consultants will help lawmakers complete that task.

Some of the supplemental pay categories identified in Tuesday’s report included compensation for professional development, activity outside the school day, work over the summer and on weekends, and work that is “deemed done,” or part of a teacher’s daily responsibilities.

The consultants’ report, which the Legislature commissioned this year, provided estimates for how much local school districts are paying across the state in each of those categories.

Now, lawmakers on the education funding task force are to use that data to make recommendations to the 2017 Legislature about how much it will cost to finish funding basic education in Washington, as well as how the state should pay for it.

Yet even as lawmakers talked about the salary data they received Tuesday, it was clear they had very different ideas about what the state should and shouldn’t cover when it comes to compensating teachers and other school employees.

State Rep. Chad Magendanz, an Issaquah Republican who serves on the school funding task force, said he thinks anything outside of work during the normal school day, including the majority of professional development, is an add-on that shouldn’t be a state responsibility.

Based on numbers included in the consultants’ report, Magendanz estimated that means the state is on the hook for only about half of what districts are paying above and beyond the state’s current salary allocations, or about $2 billion every two years.

“I see that as good news,” Magendanz said.

Magendanz said the state has the ability to raise that much money by increasing the state’s common schools levy while lowering local property taxes by a proportionate amount — an idea commonly known as a levy swap.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, who also serves on the school funding task force, is of a different mind. The Covington Democrat said teachers need to be compensated for work they do outside the school day if the Legislature expects to be able to hire and retain quality employees.

Those activities might include time grading papers, planning curriculum and training over the summer, Sullivan said.

“They’re working during that time period, and the assumption that they’re not is just inappropriate and wrong,” Sullivan said, noting the state already is struggling with a severe teacher shortage.

Based on the consultants’ report, Sullivan expects the Legislature will need to come up with at least $3 billion in its next two-year budget to finish meeting McCleary requirements.

The actual number is most likely even higher, Sullivan said, since the consultants didn’t take into account the cost of employee benefits or salaries for employees who provide special education or transportation services.

Previously, some lawmakers have estimated that fully funding salaries as required by the court will cost the state $3.5 billion every two years.

State Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, said the consultants’ report puts the Legislature on track to solve school-funding problems in 2017, as lawmakers pledged to do in legislation they passed this year.

“We need to take some time to study that report,” Braun said Tuesday.

“I think it’s a little too early to say anything other than we are still on schedule.”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

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