Politics & Government

State snags money meant for school jobs

Congress threw school districts a lifeline. State government yanked it away.

The Legislature grabbed $208 million in school funding Saturday as part of a deal Democratic and Republican lawmakers struck with Gov. Chris Gregoire.

The funding shift means the state, not local school districts, will get the windfall provided by Congress in August. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington put forward the amendment that provided the $10 billion nationwide, and she and other Democrats, including Gregoire, touted it as an immediate rescue for threatened education jobs.

Instead, it will go to shore up the state’s general fund, which counts the public schools as just one of its responsibilities and which had opened up a $1.1 billion imbalance before lawmakers’ actions Saturday.

Other states have made plans to do the same. Gregoire said Washington officials have talked about shifting the money since it was awarded and had told their federal counterparts they didn’t see any legal restrictions keeping them from it.

“We saw that from the very beginning,” she said.

Most school districts haven’t spent the money, holding on to it to offset budget cuts next year. State schools chief Randy Dorn’s office warned the districts the Legislature could spoil their plans.

IS IT LEGAL?

States aren’t supposed to take school districts’ Education Jobs money and use it for other purposes – and technically, Washington isn’t. It’s just cutting funding by an equal amount, so they won’t benefit from it.

The law doesn’t seem to prohibit that practice, called “supplanting” in the budgeting world. It does ban states from supplanting the money in a way that would help bulk up their rainy-day funds or pay off their debts.

States that take the money also are prohibited from falling below certain levels of overall spending on education.

“We’re pretty certain that this is allowable use,” House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan said of the transfer.

A teachers union lobbyist, Randall Parr of the Washington Education Association, told lawmakers during testimony Saturday that the move violates the law.

Later, Parr acknowledged that the Legislature might have found a way around that restriction. Still, he said, “The spirit of the law seems to have been violated.”

A couple of lawmakers also criticized the transfer Saturday. Rep. Mike Hope, R-Lake Stevens, said it helped cost his support for the budget deal.

“I’ve always told constituents in my district we should fund education first,” he said.

Others, such as Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, distanced themselves from it but supported it as part of the deal to close part of the yawning budget gap.

Sen. Debbie Regala, D-Tacoma, who backed the deal, said schools would have to live without the windfall they had until recently thought was in hand.

“The reality of the world today is, things change – that what was true last week may not be able to stand up today,” Regala said. She added that in trying economic times, “Lots of families certainly know that.”

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